2.17.2017 | printed in the Winter 2017 issue of VITAL magazine
No one, perhaps, embodied that philosophy more than Bill Holmberg, a true American patriot, environmentalist and tireless supporter of ethanol.
Holmberg, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who received the Navy Cross for his actions on a Korean battlefield and later spent decades as an advocate on Capitol Hill for renewable energy and environmental causes, died Sept. 8, 2016 at a hospital in Palm City, FL, after a several-year fight with cancer. He was 88.
His legacy, however, continues, thanks to his years of military service and work that paved the way for POET and the entire ethanol industry.
COMMITTED TO THE COUNTRY
A strapping 6-foot-4, Col. Holmberg signed up for the Marines at 15, lying about his age to serve in World War II. He went through boot camp and was about to go to the Pacific when he was found out and sent home. He later reenlisted and graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis in 1951.
The next year, Holmberg was leading a rifle platoon during the Korean War when he embarked on a mission deep in enemy-held territory for which he was awarded a Navy Cross, the service’s highest decoration for valor after the Medal of Honor.
Col. Holmberg, then a second lieutenant, engaged “in a fierce hand-to-hand battle while under an intense concentration of hostile mortar, machine-gun and small-arms fire,” the citation accompanying the medal read. “Although severely wounded during the engagement, he refused to be evacuated and, while receiving first aid, continued to issue orders and to direct the offensive operations of his unit.”
“He was a patriot,” says Dave Hallberg, a close friend of Holmberg’s and founder and first President and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association. “He bled on foreign battlefields for all of us.”
Once back home, the memories of the waste and devastation of war brought out a renewed sensitivity in Holmberg to protect the planet.
“He came back determined that our country wouldn’t be dependent on foreign oil,” Hallberg says.
COMMITTED TO THE ENVIRONMENT
After his military retirement in 1970, Holmberg joined the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). During the 1973 oil embargo, the EPA sent Holmberg, among others, to set up the Federal Energy Office that would be responsible for allocating fuel to the states.
After the energy crisis ended, Holmberg returned to the EPA, which put him in charge of the Operations Division in the Office of Pesticide Programs. There, Holmberg discovered the concept of ethanol, and that’s when he began championing ethanol as a sustainable, alternative energy source.
“Yes, my father was a tree-hugger – perhaps the toughest one ever,” his son Mark Holmberg, a Virginia newspaper columnist, wrote in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “He believed with every fiber of his being that integrated, sustainable agricultural/energy systems are crucial to the economic and physical health of this nation and the world.”
The more Holmberg learned about ethanol, the more he was convinced that the United States needed an alternative energy program. When the Department of Energy was created in 1978, he was one of the first who jumped on board. He ran the Citizens Participation Division, because he wanted to have the authority to get people involved in the production of energy, including ethanol.
“He was pushing biofuels back in the early ’70s before anyone else even came into the industry and considered pushing renewable energy in Washington,” says Jeff Broin, POET
Founder and CEO. “Bill was always 20 years ahead of everyone else. He was a true visionary.”
Not everyone agreed with Holmberg’s vision. In the 1970s, the push back to a clean energy vision was harsh. The industry wasn’t developed yet, and the idea of large wind farms, integrated biorefineries and hydropower installations resulted in ridicule from many policymakers, reporters and planners.
“He was definitely one of the early pioneers that promoted ethanol within the beltway of D.C.,” says Dave Vander Griend, President and CEO of ICM, Inc., a Kansas company focused on sustaining agriculture through innovation by engineering, building and supporting the renewable fuel industry. “He was the lone voice out there back then.”
But Holmberg wasn’t deterred. He worked tirelessly on behalf of the cause he truly believed in and spent an inordinate amount of time organizing, traveling the country and working with environmental advocates, entrepreneurs, sustainable farmers and land use planners, and in the national organizations in Washington, D.C.
“He cared about rebuilding rural America,” Hallberg says. “He cared about the soil. He was an environmentalist who was way ahead of his time.”
ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE
Holmberg’s excitement for his work was contagious.
“He made me believe that anything is possible,” says Larry Pearce, Executive Director of the Governors’ Biofuels Coalition.
His passion was obvious.
“Bill always had a great attitude and a smile, but was also always very inquisitive in putting out ideas on how to move the industry forward,” Broin says.
And he wasn’t afraid to do things a little differently to get a little attention, like in 1979 when he set up an entire portfolio of how clean, renewable energy would work in an actual mock community set up on The Mall in Washington, D.C. Or, when he and other ethanol advocates made a splash on the Potomac in 1993.
“One of my fondest memories comes from when we rode a biodiesel-powered ship across the Potomac to the presidential balls on the opposite side during Bill Clinton’s first inaugural event,” Broin says.
While designed to get attention, these activities weren’t merely publicity stunts. Holmberg truly believed in what he was doing.
“He was a dyed-in-the-wool American, made-in-America kind of guy,” Vander Griend says. “He lived and breathed renewable fuels. He was out there, always checking out what the opportunities were.”
Holmberg’s work didn’t go unnoticed.
In 2001, Sen. Tom Daschle, then Majority Leader, praised Col. Holmberg in the Congressional Record not only as “a war hero but an indefatigable champion of the environment.”
In 2002, Holmberg received the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Biomass Energy Program Distinguished Service Award. After retiring from the DOE, he served as an aide on Capitol Hill, working for Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and managing associations promoting solar and wind energy initiatives. Holmberg was a founding member of the Sustainable Energy Coalition, which makes major contributions to the Senate and House Renewable and Energy Efficiency Caucus. In 2002, he became chairman of the Biomass Coordinating Council of the American Council on Renewable Energy and remained as a coordinator of the organization’s biomass efforts until his death.
Holmberg continued fighting for ethanol and the environment long after most people would have retired.
“Bill Homberg was probably one of the greatest bulworths of the ethanol industry,” Hallberg says. “He understood the power of technology – how farmers, engineers, scientists and companies like POET could be competitive and make renewable fuels and high-octane fuels part of the system.”
He never gave up. And because of that, Holmberg’s legacy lives on.
“I knew Bill well and know he was a tireless advocate for our industry. … We owe Bill a great debt of gratitude,” Broin says. “Without his early investment in getting our government behind ethanol, it is doubtful that any of us would be here at POET today.”
The Godfather of Ethanol
by Janna Farley