Special to The Digest
A Billion Ton Bioeconomy. For those of us who have worked in this space for the last decade, the US government’s aspiration to grow the sector to such size and scope is music to our ears. At the Renewable Chemical & Advanced Materials Alliance (re:chem) we laud the federal cross-agency effort currently underway to realize this future. That initiative is bringing together the Departments of Energy (DOE), Agriculture (USDA), Interior (DOI), Transportation (DOT), Defense (DoD), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) — all working to triple the size of the US bioeconomy by 2030.
It will be a challenge. As the Digest’s own Jim Lane recently pointed out, the state of the advanced bioeconomy industry is fraught with risk. “Projects have not materialized in the numbers that would support rapid growth because of immature technology (expressed in unreliable operation, or high costs), and poor returns for the risk profile associated with technologies as they mature.” In this context, to reach that Billion Ton Bioeconomy goal, government policy has to be aligned, effective and realistic.
At re:chem, we believe the path toward such sector growth fundamentally requires product diversity to cross-subsidize those elements of the bioeconomy that are not immediately profitable. The Billion Ton Bioeconomy initiative specifically emphasizes the production and use of biofuels, bioproducts, and biopower. It is this trio’s breadth and depth within the sector that promises its future expansion. And, the last several years of re:chem advocacy have helped bring about some significant policy developments to drive this potential growth. More USDA and DOE funding programs than ever before now support the critical bioeconomy trio.
DOE’s recently issued Project Development for Pilot and Demonstration Scale Manufacturing of Biofuels, Bioproducts and Biopower funding opportunity certainly suggested great promise. The $90 million-plus government investment comes at a critical point for a sector laid waste by plummeting oil prices, for those companies that have struggled through some very dark days. It could have been the catalyst for true sector development, had the promise of its title been realized in the technical nuances of this funding opportunity.
Unfortunately, just at a time when investment is most needed, company after company examined, assessed and walked away from this funding opportunity. Why? Because the primary product output for allowable cellulosic, algal and biogas feedstocks had to be a statutorily defined advanced biofuel. Further, that biofuel had to be a liquid at STP (Standard Temperature and Pressure, 25 °C and 1 atmosphere pressure) conditions, suitable for use as an infrastructure compatible blendstock that could be co-processed or co-distributed with petroleum derived fuels. And, applications only proposing to produce alcohols or other intermediates without conversion to finished biofuels were disqualified.
While co-products were allowed, this pilot and demonstration funding opportunity’s singular focus on a specific biofuel output precluded many emerging bioeconomy players. The list of companies opting not to pursue this opportunity includes not only renewable chemical manufacturers. Companies with a hybrid portfolio of biofuels and biochemical products also found the highly restrictive output requirements were simply too burdensome. These are companies poised to deliver on the Billion Ton vision. And, unfortunately, in this instance, government policy missed a huge opportunity to help.
This particular funding opportunity stands in contradiction to the Billion Ton vision — it also ignores lessons learned about the inherent need for collaboration all along value chain, both up and downstream. We’ve learned no start up can solve all value chain bottlenecks and that forward-looking policy must embrace this reality.