What Happened to Bush Call for Switch Grass?


Jan. 23, 2007— -- When a presidential pet project becomes a buzzword, does that buzz translate into action?

Last year's State of the Union buzzword -- "switch grass" -- had just about all of us scratching our heads.

"We'll also fund additional research in cutting-edge methods of reducing ethanol, not just from corn but wood chips and stalks, or switch grass," Bush said during last year's speech.

The goofy-sounding catchphrase tickled America's funnybone as a word and a concept, inducing giggles and dutifully making the rounds on Comedy Central and the late night talk circuit.

But the president insisted he was serious about switch grass.

At a speech in Minnesota days following last year's State of the Union, he talked about making "ethanol out of switch grass".

A few days after that he talked about "research that will enable us to drive cars by using switch grass, " Bush said.

On February 21, 2006 in Golden, Colorado Bush imagined "people in the desert being able to grow switch grasses that they can then convert into energy".

And during energy remarks last May in Pottstown, Pa., "Somebody said, 'what is switch grass?' I said, 'Well, it's a grass that looks like a switch that grows in dry country.' "

The President called on scientists to make fuel out of switch grass -- and make it be cheaper than gasoline by 2012. His goal is to see cellulosic ethanol -- in other words, fuel made from natural materials like switch grass -- provide 30% of our transportation fuels by the year 2030.

David Bransby, a professor of energy crops at Auburn University in Alabama, is the man behind the President's switch grass buzz. He planted a switch grass seed that made its way from rural Alabama to Washington, D.C., sprouting up during the president's speech on the floor of Congress. Bransby's been researching switch grass for decades, trying to find a way to capture the energy of the plant -- a native American species that once covered huge swaths of the Midwestern plains -- and convert into ecologically-friendly fuel.

His work caught the attention of Ala. Sen. Jeff Sessions, who has visited his lab, and the test plot of switch grass he has been growing for 18 years.

Staffers of Sessions say the Senator mentioned his excitement over the possibilities of switch grass during a meeting with a White House advisor in the days before last year's State of the Union address. The idea took root with the White House, and ended up in the speech, much to Bransby's surprise.

"I nearly fell off my chair when I heard it in my living room," said Bransby. "I was really surprised," he continued. "I thought renewable energy might be mentioned, but I was really surprised when he got as specific as switch grass."

Since that mention in the 2006, investment in switch grass has exploded, thanks in large part, experts say, to the president's speech. Venture capitalists have poured over $100 million dollars into private companies that are exploring the technology necessary to convert switch grass into fuel, and large, publicly-owned companies are also directing their research dollars into bio fuels.

The switch grass story underlines the power of the bully pulpit. But is the President's enthusiasm enough to convince America to make the change from gas to grass?

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