Algae’s New Standard-Bearer

Matt Carr discusses his first 100 days as the Algae Biomass Organization executive director, experiences on the Hill, and introducing carbon capture and utilization to policymakers.
By Tim Portz | September 02, 2014

In June, the Algae Biomass Organization announced that after an extensive search, it had a new executive director. Matt Carr, formerly a managing director at the Biotechnology Industry Organization, is armed with a doctorate in atmospheric sciences from the University of Washington, a year of experience working as a congressional fellow for Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and nine years experience with BIO. Carr offers the ABO the experienced voice in Washington they were hoping to find. While a longer break-in period may have been wished for, Carr went to work on important policy work the day he took the role, while trying to find time to call member companies, schedule appointments with legislators and get up to speed on the association’s fast-approaching annual summit.


What was the most valuable thing you learned from your nine years at BIO?



Well, it was a learning process the entire time. I started at BIO after two years on the Hill, so I had some exposure to the political process. What I really learned at BIO was that Washington is a place where democracy is at work. And if you do the work, and you rally the voices of support behind your cause, you can bring about change. 


What we were able to do with the advanced biofuels community was bring national security and environmental interests together to create policy that helped launch the advanced biofuels industry. We established the renewable fuels standard, tax incentives and other programs that really helped launch an industry, despite the fact that there really wasn't a large direct constituency out there to advocate for those policies. We didn’t yet have an industry or an army of people ready to march on Washington, but we brought together a coalition and made some pretty good things happen.


What intrigued you about the opportunity with the Algae Biomass Organization?


During my nine years at BIO, I managed to learn about a wide variety of technologies and a diverse set of business models for producing biofuels, biobased products and renewable chemicals. During that time, I really found the algae story to be a compelling one. Here is a technology that takes some of the most serious criticisms of current biofuels production, whether the food vs. fuel controversy or questions about fresh water use and land use, and turned those challenges on their heads.
Algae has a great story to tell, and working on sustainability issues was what brought me to Washington. So when I saw the opportunity to represent the algae industry, I jumped at it.


What have you spent your first hundred days as the ABO executive director doing?



The first thing out of the gate is getting to know our member companies. For any trade associations, strength comes from members. I think we've got a really strong team here at the Algae Biomass Organization. It's been a great opportunity for me to get to know the technologies and how far our member companies have advanced toward commercialization.


At the same time, I've been working hard to get out to Capitol Hill and federal agencies to reintroduce them to the ABO and to tell the algae story.


How has that reintroduction gone?



There's a solid core of congressional offices that know and appreciate what algae biomass can do. There's really still a vast universe out there that may have heard of algae, but really don't have a sense of how far algae biomass technology has come over the last decade. We think that there are wide interests that once they hear the algae story, they will become strong champions.


For example, there are coal state members who are looking for ways to ensure that traditional fossil energy production can continue under a carbon regulation scheme, under the Clean Power Plan that the Obama administration has proposed. Algae is a solution for that. There are other members who are looking to move beyond the first generation of biofuels into a more sustainable model. Algae is a solution for that.


There are members who are looking to supplement existing supplies of animal feed and human nutrition at a time when feed prices are going up. Algae is the solution for that. So, what we found in these meetings as we reach beyond the community of offices who are familiar with the technology, we have found tremendous enthusiasm.


What are your goals as you look into the remainder of your first year in the role?



Right at the top of my list is, having brought the organization headquarters here to Washington, we have a pressing policy issue that I met with pretty much on day one in the form of the Clean Power Plan rules proposed by the Obama administration. This rule making has the potential to really propel investments in algae projects if done right.


Unfortunately, the initial proposed rules for both new and existing power plants really don't include algae technologies as compliance opportunities for power generators. The rule doesn’t really talk about carbon capture and utilization, which is really what algae enables.  It is the ability to take CO2 emissions that are pollutants today, capture them, feed the CO2 to algae and produce valuable products such as biofuels and other materials.


Job number one on the policy front is for us to ensure that the U.S. EPA, which has proposed the rule, understands the opportunity from carbon capture and utilization and includes that as a compliance opportunity in the final rule.


In addition to that policy goal, I'm looking forward to a strong Algae Biomass Summit in San Diego in September. We're looking forward to hosting some of the top officials from federal agencies with jurisdiction over the technology, as well as meeting researchers and algae biomass developers.
Finally, I'm hoping to grow the membership of ABO. We've got a great team, but there is a whole universe of new and emerging technology developers out there, as well as partners throughout the value chain. This includes customers, engineering firms and brand owners, all of whom have an interest in seeing algae succeed and who I would like to help bring in to the organization to strengthen our voice in Washington.


When you speak with policymakers, what is the first value of the algae industry you ask them to consider?



I think of algae as a whole new generation of agriculture. I believe when we look back a generation from now we'll say, “Thank goodness algae came along when it did.” We were increasingly challenged in finding sources of energy and transportation fuel, the demand for food and feed was ever increasing while the population was growing, and fresh water resources were dwindling, which was making both food and energy production increasingly challenging. Algae addressed all of those challenges in a way that brought new economic opportunity to the country. It created jobs, cleaned our air and improved our national security.


How do you distill the complexities of the algae industry into more palatable thinking and talking points for policymakers and their general public constituents?


In its simplest form, the algae story is sort of the story of life on earth.  When we are looking for solutions to global sustainability challenges, it makes sense to go back to our origins. In its simplest form, algae is also very much like the simplest and earliest forms of agriculture. It's allowing nature’s source of fuel for human and animal consumption, or for vehicles, to thrive in controlled environments, and continually designing better ways of doing that. That might be in open ponds, raceways or complex photobioreactors, or simply just trying to maximize algae's natural abilities to convert carbon dioxide and sunlight into energy.

 


What is the most important policy objective for the ABO right now?



Like any emerging technology, what algae biomass developers need is stable and supportive policy to drive private investment in the technology. From my perspective, the most important thing that we can do is send the signal to investors that algae has a role to play in reducing greenhouse gases and addressing the climate change challenge.


The EPA Clean Power rules are front and center on that question, and so we have to get those rules right. There is a number of other policies including the renewable fuel standard, tax policies, and support from the defense department that can complement that policy, but unless we get that right, our job in competing for scarce, private capital becomes so much more challenging.


Does advocating for emerging industries present unique challenges in Washington, D.C., that well-established industries don’t confront?


We do have a unique challenge as an emerging industry, and that is for us to harness the community of voices with an interest in algae’s success, in a way that allows our story to be heard. That includes environmental NGOs, for example, who can appreciate the many sustainability benefits that come from algae. That includes utilities that could use algae carbon capture and utilization as part of their compliance with the federal carbon regulations. It also includes state governments that will see the economic opportunity that comes from developing the algae industry, as well as customers such as commercial airlines and others rallying their voices behind our small but important voice here in Washington.

A longer version of this interview is available online at www.BiomassMagazine.com