Biofuels Challenges & Opportunities

 

This is a report of a conference sponsored by the (Gaylord) Nelson Foundation on April 20, 2007, at the Monona Terrace.  This Institute was established at the University of Wisconsin in 1970 “to integrate environmental issues across academic disciplines.”

 

The conclusion of the conference was clear: biofuels are just one of 6 or 8 measures that will be necessary to mitigate global warming, none of which qualifies as a silver bullet.  Silver buckshot was facetiously mentioned.

 

Jon Foley, professor at UW, in his keynote address mentioned that he had found a total of 928 peer reviewed scientific papers concerning climate change published in the last 5 years.  Not one of the 928 papers disagreed with the reality of global warming.  None of the 300 or so participants in the conference mentioned any contrary evidence.  Questions and comments were welcomed from the audience throughout the day.

 

Some details: 1) ethanol from corn is leading the way in the US but will soon have to give way to ethanol from cellulose because the energy value of ethanol from corn in only about 10% more than the energy of the fossil fuel required to produce it. Furthermore the current stampede to maximize corn production is unsustainable because of the resulting soil erosion.  Crop rotations, especially those including hay, are needed to permit “no-till” corn production and marginal land with too much slope should not be used. 2) Biodiesel   from soybeans produces 4 times the energy used in producing it. 3) Cellulose, the fibrous or woody portion of all plants can produce not only ethanol but also many other fuels from hydrogen to jet fuel.  4) Alliant Energy has a 300 megawatt power plant at Ottumwa, Iowa, that has successfully burned 16½ tons of switch grass per hour.  A more advanced pilot plant that will burn 3 times as much switch grass is under construction along the Mississippi River in Grant County, Wisconsin.  That will still be only 30% of the fuel for the plant—the other 70% coal.  Such a power plant would require over 100,000 acres of switch grass.  Even if this electric power from switch grass doesn’t succeed on a large scale, Alliant Energy has participated in developing the machinery to process this cellulose source efficiently by the thousands of tons, a very useful contribution to other uses of “cellulosic” energy (a new word coined by the biofuels people for obtaining fuels from cellulose).  Incidentally, switch grass is a hardy perennial, tolerates flooding, and an established stand needs an annual harvest as its only human attention.  Such a crop is ideal for planting in areas subject to frequent flooding.

 

Here are some very important, but rather incidental, points discussed during the conference.  1) A report from research in Minnesota published in Science in December, 2006, showed that 18 native species planted on degraded soil produced more energy (as cellulose) than any of them planted as a monoculture.  2) Public water treatment plants consume 3% of all our energy—more than the production of all our ethanol plants combined.  Therefore, water conservation is a large potential contributor of “silver buckshot.” 3) Much of our cropland is now rented reducing the incentive for soil conservation.  4) These new technologies should be retained under local ownership and control.  For example, refinement of vegetable oil for biodiesel is a very simple process.  Keeping it local would economize on handling costs and eliminate nonproductive middlemen. (The current ethanol plants are locally owned).  5) Political campaign finance reform was mentioned several times as useful (necessary?) for carrying out environmental goals.

 

The bottom line: ethanol from corn is a “bridge technology” to new methods.  Fortunately our ethanol plants can be converted to other feed stocks. I close with a quote (mentioned at the conference) from Gaylord Nelson: “The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment.”

 

John Frantz, NASW, April 21, 2007