Following their long tradition of attacking renewable energy, right-wing media have mocked President Obama for supporting production of algae biofuels. Yet several companies already produce biofuel made from algae, recent scientific advances have increased the fuel's potential, and the industry has been supported by both private investors and conservative politicians.
In Energy Speech, Obama Notes Development Of Fuel Made From Algae
Obama: “We're Making New Investments In The Development Of Gasoline And Diesel And Jet Fuel That's Actually Made From A Plant-Like Substance -- Algae.” In a February 23 speech at the University of Miami, Obama spoke about energy production in the U.S. He highlighted examples of renewable energy currently being produced, including fuel “made from ... algae” :
Now, right now we are experiencing just another painful reminder of why developing new energy is so critical to our future. Just like last year, gas prices are climbing across the country. This time, it's happening even earlier. And when gas prices go up, it hurts everybody -- everybody who owns a car, everybody who owns a business.
The potential of a sustained, all-of-the-above energy strategy is all around us. Here in Miami, 2008, Miami became the first major American city to power its city hall entirely with solar and renewable energy. Right here in Miami. (Applause.) The modernization of your power grid so that it wastes less energy is one of the largest projects of its kind in the country. On a typical day, the wind turbine at the Miami-Dade Museum can meet about 10 percent of the energy needs in a South Florida home, and the largest wind producer in the country is over at Juno Beach. Right here at this university, your work is helping manufacturers save millions of dollars in energy bills by making their facilities more energy efficient. (Applause.)
We're making new investments in the development of gasoline and diesel and jet fuel that's actually made from a plant-like substance -- algae. You've got a bunch of algae out here, right? (Laughter.) If we can figure out how to make energy out of that, we'll be doing all right.
Believe it or not, we could replace up to 17 percent of the oil we import for transportation with this fuel that we can grow right here in the United States. And that means greater energy security. That means lower costs. It means more jobs. It means a stronger economy. [WhiteHouse.gov, 2/23/12]
Right-Wing Media Mock Obama's Reference To Extracting Energy From Algae
Fox & Friends Mocks Idea Of Algae As Energy Source; Kilmeade Says, “I Have Algae In My Fish Tank I Used To Have.” On the February 24 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends, co-hosts Brian Kilmeade and Steve Doocy discussed Obama's speech and mocked his support for developing algae biofuels:
KILMEADE: All [Obama] did was mock a potential attack, which was to say Republicans are going to say drill more, which they did. But he also brought up something positive. He's going to be looking to pioneer algae.
KILMEADE: And use that for eventually replacing 17 percent of our oil and our -- and our diesel fuel. So if we can get the algae set -- which we can get algae anywhere.
DOOCY: So --
KILMEADE: I have algae in my fish tank I used to have. In fact, I never cleaned.
DOOCY: So this administration has been pushing solar, and now they're going aqua?
KILMEADE: Finally. Right.
DOOCY: Another Fox News alert! [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 2/24/12]
Limbaugh: “We're Listening To The President Of The United States Actually Tell Us That Our Salvation ... Is Freaking Pond Scum.” From the February 24 broadcast of Rush Limbaugh's radio show:
LIMBAUGH: Folks, did you know that pond scum, algae, pond scum is now the new source of energy in this country? We were on the air yesterday, Obama was down in Coral Gables making a speech, I told you if we had anything memorable from that we'd play it today and we do. We've got about nine or ten sound bites on gas prices alone, including some things Obama said about algae, pond scum. Now, this needs a czar. We need a pond scum czar, and that means we need somebody slimy. I think Obama could probably find a lot of slimy people to be pond scum czar.
LIMBAUGH: We're [sic] new investments in the development of gasoline and diesel jet fuel actually made from pond scum. I'm surprised he didn't say, “And we got more pond scum here than they have anywhere in the world.” He wasn't through. He said, “Believe it or not, we could replace up to 17 percent of the oil that we import for transportation with this fuel that we can grow right here in America.” This is the smartest man in the world. This is our Messiah. This is Mr. Hopey Changey. This is the guy who was unlike any politician America had ever seen. This was the great unifier. This was the guy with the solutions to all our problems. Pond scum.
He continued, as he has been doing for his entire administration, making fun of the concept of drilling. He keeps talking, “They say drill, drill, drill, drill, but that's not a solution.” He says that's for two reasons. He said that's not an immediate solution. It's gonna take two to three years. They've been saying that for 30 years, folks. For 30 years we have been suggesting drill, baby, drill and it's, no, no, no, it's not gonna take effect for three to five years, it's not an immediate fix. Imagine 30 years ago if we would've just started new drilling, new exploration, where we would be today. And where are we? We're listening to the president of the United States actually tell us that our salvation, the answer to six-dollar-a-gallon gasoline, is freaking pond scum.
The following graphic was posted alongside the transcript of the segment on Limbaugh's website:
Drudge Report: “OIL JUMPS TO $108+” As Obama “Offers Algae.” On February 24, the Drudge Report featured the following series of headlines about gas prices and Obama's speech on energy:
[Drudge Report Archives, 2/24/12]
Krauthammer Goes On Sarcastic Rant About Algae: “It's Not Oil. His Solution Is Algae. ... I Think He's On To Something Here.” From the February 23 edition of Fox News' Special Report:
KRAUTHAMMER: I was impressed by the president's analysis of this situation where, you know, we have no control over the global price of oil, we're dependent on oil from unfriendlies. And he says, as we heard, drilling for oil to relieve our dependency is not a solution, it's not a plan. He said we've got to go into clean energy, and he talked about something really revolutionary today: algae. A $14 million grant for the development of algae. So it's not oil; his solution is algae. And because we know that the Secretary of Energy is a physicist who won the Nobel Prize, the president, knowing all this stuff, said that one of the reasons that we should doing this is because we can grow algae here in the United States.
Now, it happens that algae will grow on anywhere on earth. I looked it up while I was away for those three days. You thought I was sunning myself -- I did research. It grows in oceans, in lakes and ponds, in your swimming pool when the pool man's on vacation, in snow, in ice, on soil, on turtles, on sloths, the bark of trees and rocks. Now, why are we drilling for oil? We are the Saudi Arabia of rocks. We have a mountain range called the Rockies, and we are allowing ourselves to be dominated by these oil producers.
I think he's on to something here that is truly revolutionary. Why would you build a pipeline, the Keystone pipeline, that would build real oil from Canada to put in real refineries and put in real existing cars when you can do algae? I think he's on to something, and I think this shows the vision, the hope and change he promised in 2008. [Fox News, Special Report, 2/24/12]
Study Did Show Algal Fuel “Could Replace 17 Percent” Of U.S. Oil Imports
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory Study Found That Algal Fuel Could Replace 17 Percent Of Gas Currently Being Imported. An April 2011 Wired article cited the same study Obama referenced in his speech, which was conducted by a team of researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. According to Wired, the study found “algal fuel could replace 17 percent of the petroleum the United States imports for transportation fuel each year” in the future. The 17 percent figure was the study's more conservative estimate -- the Wired article noted that the study found the U.S. could theoretically “cut petroleum imports by 48 percent,” though such a high level wouldn't be “terribly practical.” From Wired:
Forget hydrogen. Algae may be the fuel of the future.
A study by researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory finds algal fuel could replace 17 percent of the petroleum the United States imports for transportation fuel each year.
Algal fuels are made by extracting and refining the lipids within algae. Algae are attractive biofuel feedstock because it grows quickly and thrives in everything from seawater to irrigation runoff to sewage. Such fuels could go a long way toward meeting the Energy Independence and Security Act. That law requires that biofuels replace more than 10 percent of our current petroleum consumption by 2022. Half of that biofuel must come from something other than corn.
If we went for broke and maxed out our capacity to produce algae, we could cut petroleum imports by 48 percent, the researchers say. But we'd need several times our annual consumption of irrigation water to do so. It isn't terribly practical.
He says the 48 percent figure is based on unrealistic assumptions. Even the possibility of replacing 17 percent of our oil imports with algal fuel must be taken with a grain of salt.
With that in mind, Timmer writes, the researchers balance productivity and water requirements. That left the Gulf Coast, Southeast Seaboard and Great Lakes as ideal locations. And that led them to conclude we could replace 17 percent of our imported oil while consuming one-quarter of the water used each year for agriculture irrigation.
“That's still quite high, but remember that this assumes unpolluted freshwater,” Timmer writes. “The areas along the Gulf and Atlantic cost [sic] could easily use a combination of saltwater and municipal waste. The latter source could potentially provide for facilities in some of the areas in the Southwest that are otherwise ruled out due to their high water use.” [Wired, 4/15/11]
Algal Biofuel Is Already Manufactured And Used ...
2009 Popular Mechanics Article Covered “5 Companies Making Fuel From Algae Now.” An October 2009 Popular Mechanics article stated that "[a]lgae is now a burgeoning sector in biofuels with several high-profile start-ups" and profiled five energy companies that were then “leading the pack” in the “nascent field.” One company, Algenol Biofuels, had a goal of producing “1 billion gallons annually by 2012” at a production cost of “around 85 cents per gallon.” From Popular Mechanics:
Ubiquitous and easy to grow, algae has long been a promising biomass-to-fuel candidate in the eyes of researchers. Now algae is a burgeoning sector in biofuels with several high-profile start-ups, including Craig Venter's Synthetic Genomics, and the interest of big-time investors like Bill Gates and ExxonMobil. Of course, hurdles still exist to make a competitive fuel. Algal biofuels still cost too much to produce--over $8 a gallon (pdf), according to the DOE. Furthermore, most existing strains do not yield oil in the quantities needed to quickly scale up to commercial production of biofuels. Companies also need to worry about contaminating local ecosystems and the amount of water needed to grow cultures in large batches. Despite these challenges inroads--and actual fuel--are being made in the nascent field. Here are 5 projects leading the pack today. [Popular Mechanics, 10/13/09]
2009 Scientific American Article: Algal “Jet Fuel Was Tested Earlier This Year ... The Test Flight Showed That Algae Fuel Gets Better Mileage Than Petroleum-Based Fuel.” An April 2009 Scientific American article stated that Continental Airlines had then conducted “the first commercial airline test of algae-based biofuel” :
[Biotech company Sapphire Energy's] jet fuel was tested earlier this year by two of three airlines testing the commercial use of algae-based fuels in flight. Continental Airlines reported that the Boeing 737-800 test flight on Jan. 7 was successful. That test was the first commercial airline test of algae-based biofuel.
“Continental's primary role in the demonstration was to show that the biofuel blend would perform just like traditional jet fuel in our existing aircraft without modification of the engines or the aircraft,” said Holden Shannon, Continental's senior vice president for global research and security, during a congressional hearing last month. “This is important because ... the current engine and airframe technology is unlikely to change materially for many years, so it is crucial that alternative fuel be safe for use with the current aircraft technology.”
[Sapphire Energy Vice President of Corporate Affairs Tim] Zenk said the test flight showed that algae fuel gets better mileage than petroleum-based jet fuel. “We noticed a 4 percent increase in energy density in the fuels because of the lower-burning temperatures in the engine itself, which resulted in greater fuel mileage,” he said. [Scientific American, 4/28/09]
In Nov. 2011, Continental Airlines Flew The First Revenue Passenger Flight Powered By Biofuel “Derived Partially From ... Algae.” From a November 2011 Chicago Tribune article:
Continental Airlines Flight 1403 made history when it landed at O'Hare International Airport on Monday, becoming the first revenue passenger trip in the U.S. powered by biofuel.
The Boeing 737-800, which was painted in the new environmental “eco-skies'' livery of United Airlines and flown by Continental pilots, burned a ” green jet fuel'' derived partially from genetically modified algae that feeds off plant waste and produces oil.
In completing the Continental flight from Houston, parent company United Continental Holdings Inc. thus won by a scant two days the competition to launch the first biofuel-powered air service in the U.S.
On Wednesday, Alaska Airlines is scheduled to begin 75-passenger flights along with its sister airline, Horizon Air, that will take place over the next few weeks using a biofuel blend made from recycled cooking oil. Alaska Airlines officials said the 20 percent biofuel blend its planes will use will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 10 percent.
More U.S. airlines are expected to join the effort to fly more cleanly -- and eventually more economically -- than the use of traditional, petroleum-based Jet-A fuel allows, based on a crude oil price of $100 a barrel or higher, experts said. [Chicago Tribune, 11/8/11]
... And Scientists Are Discovering Ways To Increase Algae's Energy Output
Wired: Researchers Recently “Discovered How To Make Algae Produce 50 To 80 Percent More Biomass, [Which] Could Foster The Production Of Algal Biofuel.” From a November 2011 Wired article:
Researchers at Iowa State University have discovered how to make algae produce 50 to 80 percent more biomass, a finding that could foster the production of algal biofuel. The trick involves expressing, or activating, two genes that promote photosynthesis.
[Researcher and professor Martin] Spalding first tinkered with each gene individually to see what effect it had on the algae, Chlamydomonas reinhardtii. Expressing them individually yielded a 10 to 15 percent increase in biomass. Expressing them together boosted it 50 to 80 percent.
The excess biomass naturally becomes starch, increasing the biomass around 80 percent. Using existing mutated genes, Spalding can direct the algae to make oil instead. That requires more energy, increasing biomass just 50 percent.
“There is no doubt in my mind that this brings us closer [to affordable, domestic biofuel],” Spalding said. [Wired, 11/22/11]
NY Times: Sapphire Energy Scientist Says Company Has “Probably Engineered Over 4,000 Strains” Of Algae With The Goal Of Creating “Highly Efficient” “Superalgae.” From a July 2010 New York Times article:
In a laboratory where almost all the test tubes look green, the tools of modern biotechnology are being applied to lowly pond scum.
Foreign genes are being spliced into algae and native genes are being tweaked.
Different strains of algae are pitted against one another in survival-of-the-fittest contests in an effort to accelerate the evolution of fast-growing, hardy strains.
The goal is nothing less than to create superalgae, highly efficient at converting sunlight and carbon dioxide into lipids and oils that can be sent to a refinery and made into diesel or jet fuel.
“We've probably engineered over 4,000 strains,” said Mike Mendez, a co-founder and vice president for technology at Sapphire Energy, the owner of the laboratory. “My whole goal here at Sapphire is to domesticate algae, to make it a crop.”
Dozens of companies, as well as many academic laboratories, are pursuing the same goal -- to produce algae as a source of, literally, green energy. And many of them are using genetic engineering or other biological techniques, like chemically induced mutations, to improve how algae functions.
“There are probably well over 100 academic efforts to use genetic engineering to optimize biofuel production from algae,” said Matthew C. Posewitz, an assistant professor of chemistry at the Colorado School of Mines, who has written a review of the field. “There's just intense interest globally.”
Algae are attracting attention because the strains can potentially produce 10 or more times more fuel per acre than the corn used to make ethanol or the soybeans used to make biodiesel. Moreover, algae might be grown on arid land and brackish water, so that fuel production would not compete with food production. And algae are voracious consumers of carbon dioxide, potentially helping to keep some of this greenhouse gas from contributing to global warming. [New York Times, 7/26/10]
Algal Fuel Production Reportedly Has Lower Net CO2 Emissions Than Traditional Fossil Fuel Production
Scientific American: “Another Major Benefit Of Algae As A Fuel Feedstock Is Its Massive Consumption Of Carbon Dioxide.” The 2009 Scientific American article noted that “the production of each gallon of [algal] oil consumes 13 to 14 kilograms of [carbon dioxide]” :
Another major benefit of algae as a fuel feedstock is its massive consumption of carbon dioxide.
In the Sapphire process, 1 kilogram of algae biomass uses 1.8 kilograms of CO2. About 50 percent of that algal biomass is oil, so the production of each gallon of oil consumes 13 to 14 kilograms of the greenhouse gas, Zenk said.
“You can see, it's just completely packed full of that stuff,” Zenk said. “That's what makes it one of the most unique plants on planet Earth for consumption of carbon."
And while the company uses energy to transport CO2 and water to its algae-production facilities in the New Mexico desert and to transport fuels they produce, Zenk said Sapphire's lifecycle emissions are two-thirds to three-quarters less than those of producing standard diesel.
Scott Klara, director of the Strategic Center for Coal at the Energy Department's National Energy Technology Laboratory, said at a Washington energy conference last week that his team is looking into research on the beneficial reuse of CO2 from coal-fired power plants to stimulate algae production for fuels.
Companies are “starting to come forward with nifty schemes and technologies to grow algae fast, harvest that algae and then use it as fuel,” Klara said. “At the end of the day, you're still going to have CO2 emissions, but you're using the CO2 twice, effectively. So there's major efficiency there.” [Scientific American, 4/28/09]
Exxon Mobil, Bill Gates, Rockefellers Have Invested In Algae Biofuel Industry
2008 WSJ Blog Post: Gates Invested In “Sapphire Energy, A Start Up Working Towards A Commercial-Scale Facility To Produce Oil From Algae.” From a September 2008 post on the Wall Street Journal blog Environmental Capital:
Bill Gates is plunging his hands into pond scum.
Cascades Investments LLC, Mr. Gates' personal investment vehicle, is backing Sapphire Energy, a start up working towards a commercial-scale facility to produce oil from algae. And by all indications, he is not trying to save the world from its petroaddiction. He's trying to make some money.
Little known outside of green-energy circles, Sapphire Energy is at the forefront of an effort to use single-celled organisms to turn out refinery-ready oil that can be either mixed with conventional crude or turned directly into gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. [Environmental Capital, The Wall Street Journal, 9/17/08]
WSJ Blog Post Also Noted That “The Rockefeller Family's ... Venrock Was An Early Backer” Of Sapphire Energy. The Environmental Capital post went on to note that “the Rockefeller family's venture capital vehicle Venrock” was also “an early backer” of Sapphire Energy:
Still, the San Diego based company is attracting some impressive investors. These include two of the world's most famous wealthy families. In addition to Mr. Gates and kin, the Rockefeller family's venture capital vehicle Venrock was an early backer. The other two financial backers are Arch Venture Partners and Wellcome Trust. Each has contributed roughly equal amounts of the $100 million Sapphire has raised to date, according to chief executive Jason Pyle. (The investment by Cascade, which didn't return a call for comment, is new. Sapphire had previously disclosed backing from other firms.) [Environmental Capital, The Wall Street Journal, 9/17/08]
Sapphire Energy Was Listed By Forbes In 2011 As One Of “America's Most Promising Companies” And One Of “16 Companies To Watch With Under $1 Million In Sales.” In November 2011, Sapphire Energy was listed by Forbes as one of “16 companies to watch with under $1 million in sales.” It was also chosen for Forbes' list of “America's Most Promising Companies.” [Forbes, accessed 2/28/12, accessed 2/28/12]
NY Times: Exxon Mobil Made "$600 Million Investment In Algae-Based Biofuels." A July 2009 New York Times article noted that Exxon Mobil was making a “a major jump into renewable energy with a $600 million investment in algae-based biofuels.” The article said the collaboration with biotech company Synthetic Genomics, Inc., was planned to last “five to six years.” From The New York Times:
Oil giant Exxon Mobil Corp. is making a major jump into renewable energy with a $600 million investment in algae-based biofuels.
Exxon is joining a biotech company, Synthetic Genomics Inc., to research and develop next-generation biofuels produced from sunlight, water and waste carbon dioxide by photosynthetic pond scum.
Exxon Mobil's collaboration with Synthetic Genomics will last five to six years, Jacobs said, and will involve the creation of a new test facility in San Diego to study algae-growing methods and oil extraction techniques. After that, he said the company could invest billions of dollars more to scale up the technology and bring it to commercial production.
Exxon Mobil launched the partnership after years of being publicly opposed to investing in renewable energy. Privately, though, Jacobs said the company has been investigating the sector for years.
“It's fair to say that we looked at all the biofuels options,” Jacobs said. “Algae ended up on top.”
Others in the algae-biofuels industry say Exxon Mobil's investment validates the sector.
“A couple years ago, the petroleum institute said there's only a couple of years left for oil, and now they're really finally acting on that,” said Riggs Eckelberry, president and CEO of OriginOil Inc. “Algae is the feedstock to overtake petroleum. It's the real alternative to petroleum.” [The New York Times, 7/14/09]
Conservative Politicians Have Backed Government Investment In Developing Algal Biofuels
Seven Californian GOP Congressmen Wrote To Chu To Support The “Consortium For Algal Biofuels Commercialization.” In October 2009, seven Republican congressmen from California -- Rep. Darrell Issa, Rep. Jerry Lewis, Rep. Ken Calvert, Rep. Mary Bono Mack, Rep. David Dreier, Rep. Duncan Hunter, and Rep. Brian Bilbray -- signed a letter to Chu support the “Consortium for Algal Biofuels Commercialization's proposal ... to establish a world-leading effort to develop sustainable energy solutions based on algae biofuels.” The letter continued, "[D]evelopment of algae as a viable and sustainable source of transportation fuel is critical to decreasing America's dependence on imported oil, while creating new sources of meaningful green collar jobs." [HuffingtonPost.com, accessed 2/28/12, via Twitter, 2/27/12]
GOP Sen. Johanns Wrote A Letter To Dept. Of Energy Supporting “Establish[ing] The San Diego Center For Algae Biotechnology.” In September 2009, Sen. Mike Johanns (R-NE) wrote a letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu to “express my support for the proposal submitted to the U.S. Department of Energy to establish the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology.” Johanns continued, “This center would develop technology to decrease our dependence on imported oil, contribute to the establishment of a new sustainable energy industry and create new jobs.” [Slideshare, accessed 2/28/12, via Twitter, 2/27/12]
GOP Rep. Pence Wrote To Chu To “Share My Strong Support” For Biotech Company Developing An “Algae Photo-Bioreactor That Will Support ... Production Of Biofuels.” In a July 2009 letter to Chu, Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) wrote:
I am writing to share my strong support for a grant application submitted to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) by Stellarwind Bio Energy, LLC, under the ARPA-E initiative.
Specifically, Stellarwing Bio Energy, LLC is developing a low capital, operational cost algae photo-bioreactor system that will support large-scale, high-productivity single-species cultivation of micro-algae for the production of biofuels. This will make possible large scale production of 10,000 gallons of oil per acre of land per year, while consuming 100 metric tons of CO2 emissions per acre per year. [Slideshare, accessed 2/28/12, via Twitter, 2/27/12]
Right-Wing Media Have A History Of Attacking Renewable Energy
Fox Nation Claimed The “ENTIRE Solar Industry” Was On The “Brink Of Collapse.” A December 2011 post on Fox Nation claimed that the “ENTIRE Solar Industry” was on the “Brink of Collapse.” [Media Matters, 12/2/12]
Conservative Media Declared That Solar Power “Doesn't Work.” In August and September 2011, guests on Fox Business and Fox News claimed that solar technology “doesn't work” and "[doesn't] make economic sense anywhere." On the August 16 edition of Fox News' The Five, co-host Greg Gutfeld said: “Every sensible person knows that solar is about as effective as energy as I am at reaching things from a high shelf. It doesn't work. ... It's a complete fantasy.” [Media Matters, 9/2/11; Fox News, The Five, 8/16/11, via Media Matters]
Fox's Varney Claimed “Virtually Nothing” Has Come From Wind And Solar Subsidies. In April 2011, Fox Business host Stuart Varney claimed that "[v]irtually nothing" has resulted from subsidies for wind and solar power.
· In Fact, Wind And Solar Industries Have Been Growing At A Record Pace. The U.S. Energy Department's Energy Information Administration stated in January 2011 that "[w]ind power has been the fastest-growing source of new electric power generation for several years." The Solar Energy Industries Association has written that “2010 was a banner year for the solar energy market in the United States.” [Media Matters, 4/26/11]
Fox Aired Footage Of A Collapsing Wind Turbine While Discussing Obama's March 2011 Energy Speech. On the March 31, 2011, edition of Fox News' American's Newsroom, co-host Martha MacCallum discussed a recent energy speech of Obama's with guest Eric Bolling. As they spoke, footage of a collapsing wind turbine was aired. At one point, Bolling said: "[Obama's] got the idea of windmills, he's got the idea of solar panels, he's got the idea of switchblade -- switch grass -- these things don't work, Martha." [Fox News, America's Newsroom, 3/31/11, via Media Matters]