James Gaddy knows manure. Chicken manure, to be exact. He’s spent years working with it. That may not sound like much fun to you and me, but Gaddy is on a mission to power the earth — and, in the process, save it.
Specifically, Gaddy has figured out a way to produce ethanol from the bacteria in chicken manure. And it’s cellulosic ethanol, not the corn-based kind that siphons land in Iowa, jacks up the price of food, and results in almost as much greenhouse gas emissions as gasoline. No, this stuff is the real deal. It dramatically reduces greenhouse gases, and it comes from something we were going to throw away anyway.
I used to write about cellulosic ethanol, back when I first starting writing op-ed columns over six years ago. That was before the Great Recession — before we all became obsessed with the economy. People were more concerned about environmental issues then.
The most popular policy I proposed was a Manhattan Project for the 21st century: a national investment in a range of alternative energy technologies that would wean us off foreign oil and dramatically increase the efficiency of our energy use. It would be a public-private partnership. The free market would lead the way, creating and selling the products, but they would be supported by startup capital and loan guarantees from the federal government, the only entity big enough to absorb the upfront costs for a new national infrastructure, as it did in the days of Eisenhower and Roosevelt and even Jefferson.
People loved that idea. They saw it as this generation’s “we choose to go to the moon” moment. When the economy started to weaken in 2007, they liked the idea even more. Now, it wasn’t just investing in the future; it was creating jobs for today.
And it wasn’t just Democrats. The majority of my readers were Republicans, and they thought it was a great way to distance ourselves from Middle Eastern oil producers without a lot of government regulation.
According to a survey released earlier this week, their opinion hasn’t changed. The Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University polled Republicans and independents who vote Republican, and they found that 77 percent think we should use more renewable energy. A majority of them believe this so strongly that they think it’s worth the cost of any government intervention that may be necessary to achieve that goal. In fact, when they read the 2012 Republican Party platform, which doesn’t mention climate change but does celebrate coal and oil, two-thirds of them disagreed with it.
So I think it’s fair to say that Americans of both parties still want a large, Manhattan-style investment in renewable energy. Which brings me back to James Gaddy.
In Vero Beach, Florida, the Swiss company INEOS is building a biorefinery that will use Gaddy’s research to convert waste into eight million gallons of ethanol every year, all the while powering itself and creating electricity for others to use. This project would not have happened without a $50 million grant from the federal government, one of many grants included in the 2009 stimulus that has become so unpopular.
In fact, as investigative reporter Michael Grunwald documents in exhaustive detail in his book The New New Deal, the 2009 stimulus was “the biggest and most transformative energy bill in U.S. history,” funding everything from electric vehicles to high-speed rail, from biorefineries to wind farms, from solar panel manufacturing to home weatherization.
As it turned out, we got our Manhattan Project, and no one noticed. The Obama administration didn’t sell it, the media didn’t report it, and the Republicans in Congress did everything in their power to hide it and discredit it.
It wasn’t enough, but it was a start — and if the George Mason poll is any indication, it won’t be the end. The enemies of progress can stand in our way, but they can’t hold us back.
This op-ed was published in yesterday’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.