The Energy Independence and Security ActFootnote 1 established a goal of 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022 to power our cars, trucks, jets, ships, and tractors. Towards achieving this end, the corn grain ethanol industry showed remarkable growth, seeing an increase from less than 1 billion gallons produced in 1992, to more than 14 billion in 2014.Footnote 2 In 2009, the USA produced almost 11 billion gallons of ethanol and was on target for achieving the Congressional mandate of 15 billion gallons blended into the transportation fuel stream by 2022. However, the country was not on track to achieve the additional 21 billion gallons of advanced biofuels that needed to be produced from cellulose, lipid seed crops, and other biomass sources than grain starch. Investments had been made in publicly funded research and development projects before 2009, but little progress had been achieved towards meeting the legislated targets for advanced biofuels. In response, President Obama appointed Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to lead an Interagency Working Group that included the Energy Secretary Stephen Chu and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson, with the charge to develop a plan to get the country on schedule for meeting the advanced biofuels mandates.Footnote 3
During the summer of 2009, the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Research, Education, and Economic mission area convened a committee of USDA agency technical experts to explore scenarios for achieving the mandates. In September 2009, work was begun to develop a research plan to help accelerate development of advanced, third-generation, or drop-in biofuels—biofuels that are similar to petroleum-based fuels and therefore compatible with existing infrastructure and engines. A briefing paper was drafted that outlined a whole-government approach to support the existing corn starch-based biofuels industry, but also focus research efforts to help create and rapidly deploy new technologies to establish an advanced biofuels industry.
The plan prescribed a government-wide effort that used a business-oriented approach focused on complete supply chains. Each government agency had responsibility for those component parts of the supply chain covered by their expertise and policies. Attention was also focused on coordinating agency efforts among the various government programs and investments with expectations that their products would help advance commercial biofuel production. The plan identified that not only support for research was needed, but also demonstration and commercialization projects, as well as education and workforce development efforts to help ensure an emerging industry would be sustainable. The plan also recognized that dependable supplies of feedstocks would need to be made available in ways that minimized transaction costs across entire supply chains, and so help bring down the cost points of the biofuels. It was also the vision of the plan that advanced biofuels could be used as a vehicle to create new wealth for farmers, forest landowners, and rural communities.
Once developed, the research initiative titled Growing America’s Fuel was championed by the Agriculture Secretary and the White House announced the initiative February 3, 2010 as the Biofuel Interagency Working Group’s first report.Footnote 4
Based on the adoption of Growing America’s Fuel, the roles and responsibilities across USDA, DOE, EPA, and other federal agencies for achieving national biofuel targets were clearly defined. Within USDA, science and technology research and other development resources were strategically identified and directed to help accelerate short-term progress towards the production of commercially available biomass feedstocks. Specific research leadership responsibility for the USDA included the development of improved varieties of dedicated biomass crops and purpose-grown wood species, and sustainable biomass production/management and harvest within existing agricultural and forest systems.
The initiative was also used as the basis for establishing new kinds of partnerships with other non-research USDA agencies such as Rural Development, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the Farm Service Agency, as well as with non-agricultural agencies and industries including the Department of Navy (Navy), Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and the commercial aviation transportation industry represented by Airlines for America and the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI). Multiple official agreements have been established between departments to coordinate efforts including memorandums of understanding for USDA with Navy and FAA. Resulting efforts include the USDA’s Farm to Fly Initiative with Airlines for America and Boeing Corporation, and the Navy-DOE-USDA Title III Defense Production Act Advanced Drop-In Biofuels Production Project to help cost-share the building of commercial aviation biofuel refineries.
Specifically towards the need for dependable feedstock supplies of agricultural and forest-based biomass, Growing America’s Fuel specified that the USDA create five Regional Biomass Research Centers (RBRC). The regional focus of the centers recognized the diverse nature of the growing environments, different kinds of adapted feedstocks that could be produced across the country, and the opportunity for involvement of many rural areas that could benefit economically from an emerging biobased fuel economy. With the myriad of possible feedstocks that could be developed, USDA focused on five classes of feedstocks and sustainable systems for their production: perennial grasses such as switchgrass, Miscanthus, and mixed native grasses; energy cane, a biomass form of sugarcane; biomass sorghum; oil seed crops, including canola and camelina; and woody biomass from fast-growing trees and wood residues. The Agriculture Secretary announced the centers as a part of a major renewable energy policy speech at the National Press Club on October 21, 2010.Footnote 5
The USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) also translated the key features of the initiative in its development of the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Bioenergy Consolidated Agricultural Projects program, as well as the joint USDA-DOE 9008 Biomass Research and Development Initiative grant program. The resulting NIFA awards were the largest research grants ever funded by the USDA.
It was understood that the RBRC would depend upon the collective contributions of USDA research and action agency programs and require robust partnerships with other federal and state agencies, land grant and other universities, industries and investors, non-government organizations and foundations, Tribes, and international entities. Because of the coordinated approach towards developing sustainable advanced biofuel supply chains, a community of practice developed among staff members of the principal departments and agencies where expertise was shared and results were used to achieve goals with reduced conflicts. Examples included the interpretation of what constitutes a non-food crop for aviation fuel production and its use by the commercial air transportation industry and Department of Defense (DoD) service branches; the development of life cycle analyses based on the most suitable data for considering feedstocks for conversion technology pathways under the Energy Independence and Security Act; identifying the risks of utilizing potentially invasive species as biofuel feedstocks; and contribute to the creation of a national strategic plan for aviation biofuel production. These kinds of efforts were accomplished through work among agency program staff in Washington, DC with RBRC regional coordinators and researchers across the national network.