By: Jeff Jeffrey, Staff Writer – Triangle Business Journal

April 21, 2015, 3:10 pm EDT

With crude oil prices hovering around $60 per barrel, policymakers may not feel as much pressure to embrace renewable forms of energy.

But bioenergy experts say it would be a mistake for North Carolina to step back from efforts to expand its bioenergy market.

Jacob Traverse, technology development director for the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, says the bioenergy market has the ability to create something that both Republicans and Democrats can agree on – jobs.

“The bioenergy industry has been something both parties have supported because they know it brings jobs to the state,” Traverse says.

Bioenergy is field of technology that derives energy from biological sources.

Speaking during a panel discussion at N.C. State University’s State Energy Conference, Traverse said the state is particularly well-positioned in the bioenergy market because of the role agriculture plays in the state’s economy. Add to that the boom North Carolina has seen in life sciences, and Traverse says the state has the potential to take on California and Massachusetts as hubs in that space.

“We all know oil is a volatile market,” Traverse says. “This is one of the ebbs. We have to be ready when the prices come back.”

Sam Brake, manager of the North Carolina Bioenergy Research Initiative, a division of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, says the state has continued to award millions in grants to researchers looking into improving the efficiency of bioenergy technologies.

During the 2013-2014 fiscal year, Brake says the Bioenergy Research Initiative awarded $500,000 in grants to six projects. Already this fiscal year, Brake says the grants have doubled, with $1 million going to 13 research projects.

State agencies have also partnered with universities, private industry and other stakeholders to ensure the bioenergy market continues to grow.

Last year, Virginia-based biofuels company Tyton BioEnergy Systems received a $232,000 grant from the governor’s One North Carolina Fund to facilitate the purchase of a biorefinery facility in Raeford, where Tyton plans to restart ethanol production.

John Reid Evans, assistant director of the North Carolina Agricultural Research Service, says public-private partnerships have the potential to bring together experts from across the industry to share ideas.

“We’d like to see the industry grow from $78 billion inNorth Carolina to $100 billion,” Evans said.

Evans is one of several life sciences experts at N.C. State University hoping to raise $9 million for a North Carolina Plant Sciences Initiative facility that would allow researchers to work together across disciplines on projects that could benefit the bioenergy marketplace. Evans says he hopes to convince the state legislature to match the funds raised by the university.

Meanwhile, other researchers at N.C. State University are working to draw more attention to the bioenergy field by creating the N.C. Bioenergy Council.

Isaac Panzarella, an engineering professor at the university, said the council is currently developing a “roadmap” for ways the state could benefit from biofuels. He says by drawing energy from fuels like grasses, sugar cane and manure, which can be produced in North Carolina, the state would not have to spend as much to buy gasoline from other states.

“We could keep more of that money here instead of sending into other states,” Panzarella says.

The roadmap will build upon a similar document drafted in 2007 and will allow state regulators and lawmakers to develop policies that benefit bioenergy companies in North Carolina, Panzarella says.

“Solar has gotten a lot of attention and a lot of work has been done to bring the price of solar down,” Panzarella says. “But there is still an opportunity for bioenergy to take advantage of.”