Pioneer Ethanol Warrior Passes

Remembering Bill Holmberg reminds us where the ethanol industry started out, and how much was built on the efforts of early advocates. This profile of a veteran ethanol advocate appears in the June print edition of Ethanol Producer Magazine.
By Ann Bailey | May 25, 2017

When Korean and Vietnam wars veteran Bill Holmberg was buried at Arlington National Cemetery this spring, friends and family said goodbye to more than a military hero. Holmberg also was a fierce fighter for the biofuels industry.

People who knew Holmberg say he had tremendous loyalty to the ethanol industry because he believed it was critical to the sustainability of the country he fought for in two wars and loved with a patriot’s heart his entire life. Holmberg, 88, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant who received a Navy Cross died Sept. 8, 2016.

In 1970, Holmberg began working for the newly created U.S. Environmental Protection Agency after retiring from the military on a medical discharge following a heart attack while serving as battalion commander in Okinawa. His family says that Holmberg, who had grown up in rural Washington, felt renewed sensitivity for the planet after witnessing the waste and devastation the Korean and Vietnam wars wrought on the planet, his obituary says.

Dave VanderGriend, ICM CEO, met Holmberg several years later when Holmberg worked for the U.S. Department of Energy. “The DOE was formed in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter with the express intent to reduce our dependence on foreign oil,” VanderGriend says. “Bill Holmberg was one of the early employees of the Department of Energy and he was on the renewable side.” Holmberg was the founding director of the DOE’s Bioenergy Technologies Office, initially known as the Office of Alcohol Fuels. “He was a big proponent of renewable energy, and, at that time, gasohol,” VanderGriend says. At the request of Holmberg, VanderGriend and his brother Dennis built a distillation tower and hauled it to Washington, D.C., where it operated on the Capitol Mall. VanderGriend continued to work with Holmberg on ethanol issues for the next 40 years.

Holmberg saw a strong agriculture economy as going hand-in-hand with a strong nation, VanderGriend says. “Bill recognized that wealth comes from the ground and if we have a strong foundation around agriculture and renewable fuels in this country, we would have better air quality, we would benefit human health, we would benefit job creation and we would be using resources that we have within our country. He was big on wind farms, on solar, on fish farming, the whole circle of life.” Holmberg was so passionate about renewable fuels that when he worked for the DOE he chartered an airplane to fly President Carter to ethanol plants, VanderGriend says. 

Holmberg faced a lot of resistance promoting renewable fuels, especially when oil prices were low, VanderGriend notes. “Back in (the late Ronald) Reagan’s day, he was the lone soldier out there. He didn’t have a following.”  However, Holmberg didn’t let that dissuade him from promoting ethanol, VanderGriend says. “He made a believer out of this guy, then he made a believer out of that guy…. Commitment was an understatement for Bill. He breathed it (his belief in renewable fuels). Just a few months before he passed away, he was texting and sending out emails. He always had the next idea he wanted to do,” VanderGriend says. “He was a very special friend.”

Holmberg’s passion for ethanol was similar to his passion for defending his country, VanderGriend says. “He was a warrior after he got out of the military, too.”

Poet CEO Jeff Broin also was a decades-long friend of Holmberg. “I remember meeting Bill at the first ethanol conference I attended.” Throughout the years, Holmberg was a tireless advocate for the ethanol industry, Broin says. That was despite a lot of challenges, especially in the early days. “I think politically, he had an uphill climb. We were an oil-based economy in the United States and he definitely faced an uphill battle.” Holmberg was a true biofuels visionary, Broin says. “I was talking to him in the mid-1980s and he was talking about biodiesel. He was always 10 to 15 years ahead of everyone else in what he was thinking. He was an early adopter of what would later become reality.”

Holmberg was the pioneer of the word “bioeconomy” and drove the concept to be the base of global sustainable agriculture, says BETO director Jonathan Male, in an article about the office’s origin. “His vision has gone mainstream and is now the focus of an interagency collaboration, including BETO, to triple the size of the bioeconomy by 2030,” according to the article. After Holmberg left the DOE, he received the department’s Biomass Energy Program Distinguished Service Award for his leadership and dedication to advancing the mission of BETO. Holmberg continued to work as an advocate for the ethanol industry after he retired from the DOE, serving as an aide to Nebraska Sen. Bill Nelson, chairing the Biomass Coordinating Council of the American Council of Renewable Energy and helping found the Sustainable Energy Coalition.

“Over the past three years that I have been fortunate enough to be the director of the Bioenergy Technologies Office, I have seen the ripples of Holmberg’s impact on the industry, the advancement of the Federal Bioeconomy Initiative, the opening of the nation’s first cellulosic ethanol biorefineries, a strong partnership with the Department of Defense to produce renewable jet and diesel fuels for the military fleet through the Defense Protection Act and the growth of a nascent bioenergy and bioproducts industry,” Male says at the conclusion of his article about Holmberg. “Bill Holmberg understood the importance of bioenergy in growing our nation’s energy future and the force of his eternal optimism of reaching a thriving bioeconomy is still felt within the walls of BETO and on Capitol Hill to this day. Bill Holmberg was a giant that led the way in bioenergy.”

Holmberg was a longtime friend and co-founder of ACORE where, at various times throughout his career, he worked on the staff and served on the board of directors and advisory board. Several ACORE associates shared their thoughts in a tribute to Holmberg found on the organization’s website:

“Bill was a friend and mentor to me and many others in renewable energy. We will miss his quiet wisdom, great resolve—and the twinkle in his eye,” said Dan Reicher, chairman of ACORE’s board and executive director of the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford University.

Todd Foley, senior vice president for policy and government affairs at ACORE, said, “From my perspective having known him since the late 1980s at U.S. EPA and then working more closely with him at ACORE, Bill was all about service to his country, to our earth and, in recent years, to our organization and its mission. He was a great marine, cold warrior and champion for the environment—a real hero. He was also a great leader at ACORE, terrific colleague and mentor to many of us, including those who’ve been around awhile and especially young people getting their start. He leaves an incredible legacy and will be sorely missed.”

James Hewett, program manager at ACORE, said, “Bill Holmberg will forever be remembered as both a true American hero and a pioneer for the renewable energy industry. I am honored to have had the privilege of working for and learning from him. The entire renewable energy community owes a great deal to Bill for his tireless work from 1970 to his passing. We have all lost a great friend and mentor.”

Tom Weirich, senior vice president of corporate relations at ACORE, said, “Bill was a hero not only on the battlefield as one of the most decorated marines in U.S. history, but also as a hero for our industry during a time when we needed direction, growth and a vision. I salute Bill for accomplishing his mission and for instilling in us, the new generation of renewable energy leaders, a cause and industry to fight for. Rest in peace, Bill, we will continue your mission.”

Author: Ann Bailey
Freelance Journalist