Smoking the Tall Panic Grass

Michael Giberson

Switch grass, sometimes called “tall panic grass,” is not often the subject of fervent policy debate. But the weed was thrust into the limelight this week when it gained Presidential mention in the State of the Union address along with wood chips and stalks, as pillars of hope for our energy future. Maybe so, but we already spend a lot of federal R&D money on ethanol, so it isn’t exactly clear that spending more is best use of taxpayers’ money.

A year ago, in his 2005 SOTU address, the President called upon Congress to pass comprehensive energy legislation. Congress did, and almost exactly six months ago, the President signed into law the Energy Policy Act of 2005. He said:

For more than a decade, America has gone without a national energy policy. It’s hard to believe, isn’t it? We haven’t had a strategy in place. We’ve had some ideas, but we have not had a national energy policy. And as a result, our consumers are paying more for the price of their gasoline, electricity bills are going up. We had a massive blackout two summers ago. And because we didn’t have a national energy strategy over time, with each passing year we are more dependent on foreign sources of oil.

Six months ago we get the national energy strategy the President wanted — the product of years of Administration effort — and yet suddenly Tuesday night, all of that was forgotten and the President was off in a new direction, with a dreamy list of energy wishes that sound like they are straight out of the 1970s.

Is he lost in the tall panic grass, or is he smoking it?

Notes: The White House press release on the “Advanced Energy Initiative,” which provides a much expanded explanation of the effort, does mention last year’s Energy Policy Act in the last sentence.

More reactions to the President’s “Advanced Energy Initiative” and one link on switchgrass as biofuel.

Advertisements

7 thoughts on “Smoking the Tall Panic Grass

  1. “Is he lost in the tall panic grass, or is he smoking it?”

    Neither, he is doing what any politician does, spending our hard taxpayer dollars in ways that the MSM will aprove. They live in the perpetual twilight of their ignorance of economics. To them there is nothing sweeter than the words: “Federally Financed Research Project.”

    The thing is that none of these techologies need much R&D. Ethanol, is after all, one of mankind’s oldest inventions. The real problem is the economic world. Is $65/bbl a permanent condition or just a cyclical peak. Will it go higher or not?

    Those are the real issues.

  2. The real surprise, Mike, would be if you were really expecting something of substance from the man.

    [Aw, darn! I guess we’re not going to Mars after all!]

  3. The real surprise, Mike, would be if you were really expecting something of substance from the man.

    [Aw, darn! I guess we’re not going to Mars after all!]

  4. While ethanol itself isn’t a recent “discovery”, the ability to produce fuels at a large scale from cellulose–the leaves, stems, and stalks of plants as opposed to the fruit and seeds–surely is a new development being made possible by advances in biological and thermochemical processing. The yields, energy intensities, low feedstock costs, and potential bi-products indeed make cellulosic ethanol and Fischer-Tropsch fuels quite attractive.

    While federally funded R&D initiatives may have a very mixed track-record (ranging in success from ARPANET to DOE’s FreedomCar), the market underprovides basic research and even precommerical applied research because it’s a public good. The challenge is not to “pick winner” technologies in advance of their development.

    There is surely a role for government funded precommercial RD&D to overcome the recalcitrance of cellulosic biomass. There is strong recent evidence supporting the technical feasibility here. However, I believe it won’t be too long until entrepreneurial actors such as Iogen, ADM & Cargill ramp this work up on their own.

    Yes, a lot of public $$ has been spent to distort and build a market for ethanol made from corn kernel starch. That political boondoggle should not be confused with the little but growing cellulosic ethanol R&D research funding from DOE.

  5. Derek is right. This is a very big deal in the long term. Credit Bush for picking up on this when most commentators are still ignorant of the phenomenon, and proudly displaying their ignorance at every opportunity.

    Check out this article along with the extremely informative links to the pdf research information.

  6. Derek is right. This is a very big deal in the long term. Credit Bush for picking up on this when most commentators are still ignorant of the phenomenon, and proudly displaying their ignorance at every opportunity.

    Check out this article along with the extremely informative links to the pdf research information.

  7. No, Bush was not smoking grass.  For one thing, he was touting a scheme with enough losses (biomass to ethanol, 48%; ethanol in the tank to work at the wheels, ~15%) to make it impossible to replace oil.  He was just doing the bidding of his masters.

    Despite the emptiness of the rhetoric, the administration was back-pedalling just two days later.

Comments are closed.