Are algae-based fuels “wishful thinking at best”? This is the statement made in a letter to the editor on the Berksmont News website. The author writes that State Representative David Kessler is wasting time and taxpayer money supporting algae biofuels, essentially stating that algae fuels are mainly hype with no substance.
I would tend to agree with the author that some in algae industry have made claims that have led no where, but on the whole, algae fuels are not wishful thinking at all.
First off, contrary to what the author hints at, algae fuels are not currently subsidized. Subsidies, in the way he is using the word, would mean direct payment from the government to producers of these fuels. Ethanol currently receives these subsidies, algae does not. Algae currently receive no per unit, recurring subsidies like ethanol. The only kind of governmental money that could be considered a subsidy that algae receives are set amounts of money to be used for things like research and development.
This kind of spending on algae research is something that Robert Rapier of Consumer Energy Report (the link that the author includes in his letter) actually supports.
The author also seems to have unrealistic ideas of where the algae industry currently is with regards to commercialization. He questions whether any support of algae is needed since if its potential is as good as Rep. Kessler says it is, “algae to fuel would sell itself”. Currently, many in the algae industry believe we are still in the research, development, and deployment phase. This phase is highly reliant on investments since revenue from commercial products typically does not exist. Therefore, one cannot expect widespread, revenue-supported algae biofuel enterprises to start appearing without continued support from private and public sources in the interim.
It is also unfair to try to compare algae based fuels to crop based ethanol. For example, whereas growing large terrestrial crops has been fine-tuned and perfected over millennia, growing algae has been around for a much shorter time and has only been used for specialty products whose prices far exceed the going rate for transportation fuels. Once again, time and money will need to be invested in research to reduce the cost of growing algae for fuel at commercial levels. Serious research into this issue only really resurfaced after 2000 with serious investments only really starting to pour in after 2007.
Luckily, algae fuel basics have been proven feasible (ie, we know we can take oil from algae and use it to produce fuel for cars, trucks, planes, etc.) and the main thing companies and research institutions are working now are ways to scale up production to commercial levels.
As with algae companies going under, yes, Greenfuel Technologies did close down. However, many other companies have seen huge successes. For example, Solazyme has already produced and sold 20,000 gallons of algal fuel to the US Navy, with a contract for another 150,000 more gallons in the works. OriginOil, another algae technology company, has successfully sold their products to another company for use. These actions, plus many more, would hint that algae fuels are not just “wishful thinking”.
Overall, algae biofuels are viable in the long term and both the algae industry and general public need to be wary of statements that could be chalked up as “hype”. However, to dismiss an entire industry that has been advancing by leaps and bounds over the past several years would be irresponsible, especially if you believe in benefits that alternative fuels can offer.
UPDATE (4:30pm): It seems that the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill yesterday to give algae tax parity with cellulosic fuels. That would be considered a certain kind of subsidy to most. It still has to be passed by the Senate and signed by the president before it comes into affect.
Also, the 6th paragraph from the top was edited to make it clearer.