An ambitious, University based, USDA sponsored research project investigating
the sustainable production and distribution of bioenergy and
bioproducts for the central U.S.

Listening in with USDA’s Bill Goldner

By Pamela Porter

CenUSA Bioenergy had the chance to talk with Dr. Bill Goldner, Acting Division Director for the Division of Sustainable Bioenergy of the Institute for Bioenergy, Climate and Environment in the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Institute.  Goldner is also the team leader of the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) Regional Coordinated Agriculture Project (CAP) Program whose goal is developing regional, sustainable bioenergy systems that “integrate research, education, and extension/tech transfer to lead to real-world outcomes.” The program has awarded $156 million in grants over five years to support seven regional bioenergy CAPS. Three of the seven CAPs, including CenUSA Bioenergy focus on perennial grass-based biofuels and bioproducts.

CenUSA Bioenergy: What were USDA NIFA’s original goals with the CAPS and how have they changed over time as conditions in the world have changed?

Dr. Bill Goldner: Secretary Vilsack refers to the USDA as the “quality of life, everyday – every way” agency. NIFA works hard to catalyze and facilitate outcomes in response to societal challenges. Our vision for the Regional Bioenergy Cap Program was to facilitate the development of sustainable regional production system of biofuels, biopower, industrial chemicals, and biobased products through partnerships and collaboration. Bypassing cellulosic and corn grain ethanol allowed us to support the advanced biofuel mandate of the Renewable Fuel Standard 2. In 2009 when the CAP Program was conceived oil was greater than $100 per barrel and we had heard of hydraulic fracking, but had not expected its rapid impact on natural gas and domestic oil production. The current impact of low fossil carbon (petroleum, natural gas) prices on our program is to pivot to include industrial chemicals and value-added products as commercial outcomes that will eventually enable the production of liquid transportation fuels. Low oil prices, while here to stay for a while, are unsustainable, so we need to be ready to deploy new technologies and strategies.

CenUSA Bioenergy: What are some of the most important things that USDA has learned from these big research projects? 

Dr. Bill Goldner: Four years later, the need to reduce use of fossil carbon could not be greater. With commodity fuel prices being artificially depressed by global circumstances we are looking for ways for the CAP projects to develop new economic drivers, such as chemicals and products to provide a rational for regional farmers and land managers to plant perennial feedstocks that can provide increased income, and in most cases ecosystem services like reduced greenhouse gases, wildlife and pollinator habitat, carbon sequestration, and improved water quality. 

We’ve had it reinforced that fuel is a commodity and as a consequence it is not a high value product. The higher value co-products will drive the deployment of biofuels. For the CenUSA project, biochar, bio-based chemicals and other bi-products of pyrolysis are important to drive the economics.

We have also recognized the value of having academics work closely with industry partners, government labs and non-governmental organizations. This aspect, along with attacking bottlenecks along the entire biofuel/product supply chain through multidisciplinary teams integrating research, extension, and education have demonstrated the true power of a system-based approach.

CenUSA Bioenergy: What are some of the big breakthroughs so far? What opportunities are you seeing? 

Dr. Bill Goldner: Alternative jet fuel is giving us a lot of opportunity. The airlines and the military own a tremendous amount of jet fuel storing and blending capacity. The DOD, DOE and the USDA are supporting three commercial aviation biorefineries. We’re also seeing industry coming through, signing long-term agreements.

The NARA project is taking slash/forest residuals from Weyerhaeuser timber operations and making jet fuel from it. Bio-aviation fuel is as good if not slightly better than fossil fuel. NARA’s conversion partner Gevo is working on producing 1,000 gallons of jet fuel from sugars derived from forest residuals, and Alaska Airlines has agreed to fly a commercial test flight in 2016. This would be the first time that a commercial aircraft has flown on jet fuel produced from lignocellulosic biomass.

The Sustainable Bioproducts Initiative (SUBI) led by Louisiana State University and USDA Agricultural Research Service has similarly made great progress across their entire project.

CenUSA Bioenergy: As CenUSA Bioenergy begins its fifth year, what is your reaction to the work that CenUSA has done so far? What does the future hold?

Dr. Bill Goldner: The CenUSA project has come a long way. Focusing on a set of perennial biomass grasses, the project is at the nexus between commodity row-crop (corn and soybean) production, ecosystem services (water quality improvement, erosion control, wildlife/pollinator habitat), and enhanced economic opportunity for farmers and rural communities.  After four years the project has accomplished many of the project goals and is working to expand its interface with potential commercial partners and investors needed to reach commercial outcomes. Integration has been good across both supply chain elements and among research, education, and outreach. Internal and external project communication has been excellent, thanks to the Extension and Education Teams.  Academic, Federal, and industrial partners have all stepped up to work together to address and reach project objectives. While there are many important aspects of the project that will contribute to its success, the biggest barrier to commercial success is the feedstock production and logistics cost. The crop genetic development team and the feedstock logistics team have done stellar work on these Herculean tasks.

The focus for Year Five should include: continued crop genetic improvement (targeting 10 tons per acre); continued efforts to reduce the cost of producing biomass and the biomass logistics chain; modulation of the thermochemical processing technology to assist in cost reduction; and identifying opportunities and developing business prospectuses for a range of potential commercial outcomes that will enable informed discussions with stakeholders up and down the supply chain. CenUSA has a terrific Advisory Board who is fully engaged and provides feedback and guidance. Archer, Daniels, Midland and Renmatix, two potential commercialization partners have stepped up support. The entire CenUSA team should be proud of their accomplishments that have put CenUSA into a position of relevance and international, national, and regional attention, and remain focused on creating the commercial outcomes. The economics will largely drive the planting of perennial biomass crops that will mean so much to their region and those downstream throughout the Missouri and Mississippi watersheds and the Gulf of Mexico.

CenUSA Bioenergy: The CAP program represents a bold departure in the way NIFA has distributed AFRI grants. What is your perspective on the CAP’s and their contributions to bioenergy research?

Dr. Bill Goldner: These are the most impressive projects that I have experienced in my 15 years with USDA, and that includes projects funded by other agencies including DOE and NSF. In a very real way, the regional CAPs have become key parts of the foundation of the emerging Bioeconomy.  

NIFA expects to support integrated CAP projects now and in the future. The benefit to research, Extension, and education faculty and student is undeniable. Societal challenges demand integrated systems-based solutions through public-private partnerships. Recent presentations at the Global Bioenergy Partnership International Meeting in Stockholm, Sweden by Dr. Ken Moore, representing CenUSA, NEWBio (Penn State-led CAP), and NIFA, and a detailed presentation that I made to the National Academy of Sciences Low Carbon Aviation Committee highlight the growing interest in the CAP program. The Department of Energy recently competed a “Bioenergy Landscape Design” program modeled after the NIFA Regional Bioenergy CAP Program, and a public-private partnership in British Columbia has been modeling setting up a CAP-like program in western Canada resembling the NARA CAP in the Pacific Northwest.

Incidentally, thus far, the CAP projects have spent about $95 M of the original projected $156 M. More than a third of these funds have gone support Extension/outreach/tech transfer ($19 M) and education ($15 M) making the CAP program among the largest supporters of extension and education in the agency.

Moving forward NIFA will also continue to support smaller projects by single or small groups of investigators in both basic and applied research areas. While the regional CAPs have been grabbing the headlines, the rest of the Bioeconomy-Bioenergy-Bioproducts (or B3) program portfolio gives ample support to research and development, as well as outreach and education through:

  • Bioenergy, Natural Resources, and Environment (BNRE) AFRI Foundational Program
  • AFRI Bioenergy Education Program
  • AFRI Standard Research Grant Program
  • Biomass Research and Development Competitive Grant Program
  • Critical Agricultural Materials Program
  • Biodiesel Education Program
  • Small Business Innovation Research Program