Secretary Chu Re-Examines Ethanol

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu spoke at the National Press Club this week and sparked conversation about alternative energy by claiming that the U.S. faced a “Sputnik” moment. He argued that it is not too late for the US to once again become the global leader in energy innovation and research. While his central point was that the US is lagging behind in the global race for clean energy, the question and answer session of his speech discussed specific alternatives to bio-diesel.

Most noteworthy was the question about the use of ethanol as a replacement for gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. This question was particularly relevant as the tariff and subsidy for corn-based ethanol is up for expiration on December 31st. While many have considered ethanol as an excellent alternative to crude oil, Secretary Chu pitched biomass (synthetic fuels) as the most efficient and effective power source. Chu recognized that the use of biomass could eliminate large amounts of spending on infrastructure, as biomass does not require new pumps and pipelines (unlike ethanol). Moreover, he related this question back to his central argument by explaining the types of discoveries being generated at three American research centers in the past few years. Chu explained that many are turning to a discovery written about in Nature Magazine that uses a strain of e-coli to produce micro diesel from renewable bulk plant materials, such as sugar and cellulose.

Chu’s response about the diminishing use of ethanol and the growing importance of bio mass speaks directly to his “Sputnik” message. The innovation and alternatives to Ethanol suggested by Chu represent the exact type of thinking/ideas he’s promoting. As America steps up its game in the global energy race, we need to foster, promote, and fund the types of ideas being discussed and uncovered in research centers, or as Secretary Chu calls them “energy hubs,” across our nation.

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