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Biofuels Testimony

I had a chance this morning to testify before the House Agriculture Committee about USDA’s commitment to energy security for America.  I shared the spotlight for this hearing with Under Secretary Tonsager, and together we impressed on our colleagues on the Hill the great challenges we have before us in developing a new biofuels industry, and expertise and knowledge of the many people here at USDA working on this critical issue.

Congress has laid out a significant challenge to produce 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022 to power our cars, trucks, jets, ships and tractors. This is a substantial goal, but one that the United States, with the help of American agriculture, can meet or beat. However, I believe to achieve this goal we will need to expand our focus on drop-in or third generation fuels. These are biofuels that can directly substitute for gasoline, jet fuel, and diesel.

Today more than 9 billion gallons of biofuels are produced annually by first-generation biofuel technologies that turn corn grain starch into ethanol, an increase from 1% of the U.S. fuel supply in 2000 to 7% in 2008.

However, Congress in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) stipulated that only 15 billion gallons of the 36 billion can be provided by ethanol produced from grain, or what is called first-generation biofuel. This means that 21 billion gallons of biofuels will need to come from sources other than corn grain. Second-generation biofuel technologies that turn crop residue such as corn stover or dedicated energy crops such as switchgrass into ethanol, and third-generation biofuel technologies that turn these feedstocks into advanced biofuels – synthetic substitutes for gasoline, jet fuel, and diesel – will have to come rapidly into commercial use.

If we are to reach our target of 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022, we will need to change the way we do business. The U.S. has funded thousands of worthy projects, but there has been little effective integration of these efforts across government agencies, and also there has not been a focus on partnering with public and private resources to rapidly develop biofuel supply chains capable for achieving our nation’s biofuels goals.  Significant parts of the supply chain have been ignored or have received too little attention such as sustainable feedstock production systems, solutions to lower the cost of biomass transport, and efforts to leverage America’s existing fuel distribution and utilization systems.

Switchgrass and Genetecist Ken VogelFor example, the amounts of biomass and other dedicated energy crops that are needed to produce second- and third-generation biofuels basically requires creation of an entirely new agricultural commodity sector. There are many economic and environmental uncertainties to be expected as this sector emerges.   We intend to focus on feedstock development for a range of second- and third-generation bioenergy crops.  We will continue to work in corn – where our Agricultural Research Service scientists have made important recent discoveries in genomics.  And we will build a robust research portfolio in perennial grasses (like switchgrass and miscanthus), energy cane, sorghum, and other potential dedicated feedstocks.  To ensure continued genetic improvement of bioenergy crops, NIFA and DOE Office of Science have partnered to fund six projects totaling $6.3 million for fundamental science to accelerate plant breeding programs by characterizing the genes, proteins, and molecular interactions that influence biomass production.

Under Secretary Tonsager and his team have taken a leadership role in helping to ensure that people throughout rural America can contribute to building this new capability to produce and deliver biofuels to the market.  Without their work in commercializing biofuels and developing markets to realize rural wealth, our research on biofeedstock development and cultivation won’t ensure the energy security biofuels can bring.  Promising developments in the laboratory or inventions by a farmer or an aspiring entrepreneur will simply never see the light of day. Innovation and our ability to meet the food, fuel and fiber needs of the country will come from all sorts of places and we need to incubate those technology breakthroughs as well.

We need this now more than ever, so that we can unleash the creativity and skills of people in government, in college laboratories, in the garages of aspiring entrepreneurs, and in the R&D facilities of the private sector.

– Raj Shah, Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics

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