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San Diego Green Companies React to Obama Energy Plan

Rising fuel prices at home and continued unrest across the Middle East have prompted another call for energy independence. President Obama has called on the nation to achieve a one-third reduction in oil imports over the next decade. The proposal also calls for the development of biofuels, including the algae-based fuel already being produced on a small scale in the San Diego region.

Stephen Mayfield, PhD., UCSD professor and founder of the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology (SDCAB), explains that the technology is available: "We've technically achieved it,” he said. “We have taken algae, we've grown it up, we've extracted oil, we've converted that to gasoline, to diesel and to jet fuel."

The fuel was then successfully tested on commercial jetliners, heavy-duty trucks and cars.

Mayfield said the next step is to fund the investment needed to mass-produce the alternative fuel. He said he is encouraged by President Obama's speech on Thursday, but cautions it's similar to what presidents have been saying since the 1950s.

If the requests made by President Obama are met, the San Diego and Imperial County regions could see an even bigger rise in green job creations. In recent years, green sector jobs in San Diego have led California in growth at 6 percent compared to the state’s overall rate of 3 percent.

Skeptics of alternative fuels have long criticized the high cost of production and even higher cost of investments needed for mass-production.

Mayfield explained that the reason gasoline can have such a low cost is due to the scale at which it is produced. Once the biotech industry can achieve that economy of scale, the U.S. can spend the same amount of money for fuel domestically instead of sending it overseas.

During his speech at Georgetown University, President Obama stressed that America, from now on, must always keep alternative energy and fuel in mind, not just when gasoline prices are reaching record highs.

Mayfield argues that gasoline prices are only going to keep increasing due to the fact that it will eventually run out. According to the British bank HSBC, the world has less than 50 years of oil available, all while quickly developing countries like China and India continue to demand more oil by the day.

The United States imports nearly 11 million barrels of oil daily, currently at an average price of $100 per barrel. “That is $1.1 billion a day that could be spent domestically on biofuels,” said Mayfield.

Currently, the San Diego region is home to almost 800 clean technology companies, about 30 of which concentrate on the advancement of algae and biofuels.

Local universities like UCSD, San Diego State University, the University of San Diego and Mira Costa College will be taking part in offering a six-month bio-energy training program. EDGE (Education and Developing workers for the Green Economy), which is paid for by a $4 million grant by the Department of Labor, aims at offering job training for green sector jobs in the region.

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