Biofuels center director: Next president should take page from JFK

The director of the International Center for Advanced Renewable Energy and Sustainability (I-CARES) 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 set a similar goal to President Kennedy’s from 1961 — to put a man on the moon and to bring him back to Earth by the end of the decade,” 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 is the director of I-CARES, a sustainable energy research center that 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 and issues that goal 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 that happen.”

As a researcher, Pakrasi has assembled multidisciplinary teams of researchers to unravel the mechanisms of how organisms harness available energy. He has received funding from two Federal agencies for the quest, and has changed the way biology research is conducted 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 many are hurting from the over-reliance on oil. Pakrasi says there should be an all-out endeavor to convert petroleum reliance to alternative, sustainable energy sources such as wind, solar, ethanol and “clean coal.” Coal, which is abundant in the three most populous countries in the world, (China, India and the United States) could be the energy most accessible to modification.

“Clean coal technology is a big thing right now,” he says. “It’s a reasonable goal to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal by 10 to 20 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 to have a more specific plan 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 power also, 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 though, 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. Obama calls for increasing fuel economy standards four percent per year and the creation of a federal renewable portfolio standard that will require 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 until we run out of petroleum, hence we have to do something now.”

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