Wesley Clark: “We must continue to fight for biofuels”

Former U.S. General Wesley Clark tells us why global warming, the price of oil, and self-driving cars are good reasons to move more quickly towards renewable fuels – and what the biofuels industry must do to keep pace.

crescentino-plantAfter a long career in the U.S. Army, General Wesley Clark has first-hand knowledge of why energy security is important for nations. The former general is a passionate advocate for biofuels, and recently spoke at Novozymes’ European Bioenergy Summit

The meeting brought together biofuel industry experts and ethanol producers, including some of our 
customers, who debated how to grow the ethanol industry together. Afterwards, we asked the general about the industry’s key concerns and future opportunities, as countries work towards agreeing a global deal on the climate (LINK to COP21).

Novozymes: Global oil prices have been low for a while. How does this impact the biofuels industry?

Wasley-ClarkWesley Clark: When the price of oil is high, people look for alternatives; when the price is low, people forget about alternatives. The biofuels industry has to have enough financial strength to deal with a period of low prices. When oil prices are low, they must reduce cost and continue to produce and fight for the market. 

Behind the need for fuel and energy, there is the concern for global warming, and there should be a greater urgency than is reflected in the market place. We should absolutely be transitioned as rapidly as possible away from fossil fuels. The public has temporarily lost sight of this.

Should the biofuel industry do more to change public perceptions?

The difficulty is that the public sees renewables as solar and wind, but they don’t see clearly that renewables are in the liquid fuel supply. In the U.S., some ethanol blend pumps have a different color on the handle, but it’s not sufficient distinction to make a real difference in the public. 

Changing public perception is a matter of investment. The biofuels industry has to set aside sufficient funds to generate public acceptance and public demand. Organizations have to understand that they can’t compete against each other; they have to compete together for a greater market space and to fight for the industry.

How will the industry become more competitive?

ClarkinterviewPowering transportation is a competitive industry: it could be electric, fossil fuels or renewables. How that’s sorted out is not only a matter of consumer preference, but of how governments slant their regulations to favor the emergence of one industry over another.

Some forms of transportation, such as aircraft, are going to be more dependent on liquid fuels than others. If the mandates are in place to blend biofuel into commercial jet fuel, we would move in that direction.

In the U.S. people are really excited about self-driving cars, and it’s commonly presumed that these would naturally be electric. But you can self-drive a gasoline powered vehicle just as easily - it’s the same electronic controls, and it has greater range. Ethanol is a very high octane fuel, and if you design a motor built on this, you can make smaller and much more efficient engines that are cleaner. The industry should be thinking about these trends.

What makes the U.S. and European ethanol industries different from each other?

The main difference is that we have a lot of political power in the U.S. behind corn-based ethanol. [By contrast] Europe has a chance to bring its farmers together with cellulosic ethanol in a more coherent way. Making it competitive means that you’ve got to have the market opportunities and then you scale [up]. The technology is there, the workforce is ready. They just need a chance to play in the market.