Biofuels center director: Next president should take page from JFK

October 13, 2008

The director of the International Center for Advanced Renewable Energy and Sustainability (I-CARES), a sustainable energy research center at Washington University in St. Louis, is challenging the next president of the United States to set goals in energy research and implementation.

"I would like to see the next president of the United States come out with a similar statement that President Kennedy issued in 1961 - we will put a man on the moon by the end of the decade and bring him successfully back to Earth," says Himadri B. Pakrasi, Ph.D., the George William and Irene Koechig Freiberg Professor of Biology in Arts & Sciences, and Professor of Energy in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Pakrasi coordinates university-wide and external collaborative research in the areas of renewable energy and sustainability - including biofuels, CO2 mitigation and coal-related issues.

"I like leadership that sets a specific goal within a fixed timeframe, issued in an impassioned way that wakes up the entire nation. Energy is the engine of life. If we have accessible energy taken out of our lives, then disaster will take place. We cannot let it happen."

As a researcher, Pakrasi has assembled multidisciplinary teams of researchers to unravel the mechanisms of how organisms harness available energy, in his case using a humble photosynthetic bacterium. He has been funded from two Federal agencies in the quest, and has changed the way biology is done by harnessing the skills and insights of researchers from across the university and the world.

Prices and supplies of petroleum have been prominent in the news and people everywhere are hurting on the over-reliance of oil. Pakrasi says there should be an all-out endeavor to convert from an over reliance on petroleum to alternative, sustainable energy sources such as wind, solar, ethanol and "clean coal." In fact coal, which is abundant in the three most populous countries in the world, China, India and the United States, could be the energy area most accessible to modification.

"Clean coal technology is a big thing right now," he said. "It's a reasonable goal to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal by ten to twenty percent over the next five years. We need the commitment. We have the talent and resources. We have to have the push from the leadership."

Pakrasi has studied the energy policy statements of presidential contenders John McCain and Barack Obama, and is convinced that both candidates recognize the need for alternative renewable fuels and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. He finds one candidate more specific than the other.

"I'll try to put politics aside and analyze strictly from an energy perspective, " he says. "McCain is quite specific about nuclear power, stating that he wants 45 new reactors built by 2030. He touches on wind, solar, geothermal and hydroelectric, but doesn't get very specific. He mentions an investment by government in basic research and targets reduction of greenhouse gases, which is a welcome statement because we've seen comparatively little of it in the current administration. Beyond the nuclear reactor statement, he is not very specific at all.

"Obama makes statements like a proposal of $150 billion over ten years in clean energy research, development and deployment. That's a statement that's visionary, and it's not a distant timeframe."

Among the goals Obama declares are increasing new building efficiency by 50 percent and existing building efficiency by 25 percent over the next decade, Pakrasi says. He calls for increasing fuel economy standards four percent per year and the creation of a federal Renewable portfolio Standard that will require that 10 percent of American electricity be derived from renewable sources by 2012 and 25 percent by 2025.

"I like goals like this because they give you something to strive for," he says. "I want to challenge both candidates to be more proactive and acknowledge the fact that all of civilization is demanding that we pay more attention to the way that we produce energy and how it impacts our environment. Let's do something fast and not wait for 25 years from now.

"When do we need alternative energy? Yesterday. Doomsayers predict that the whole energy field will collapse as soon as 2010, while others say we have plenty of petroleum for another 100 years. It's simply a matter of time that we run out of petroleum; hence we have to do something now."

Washington University in St. Louis

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