May 24, 2006 | General

U.S. Farms Ready For Major Role In Energy Production

BioCycle May 2006, Vol. 47, No. 5, p. 55
An unusual coalition of “do-gooders, treehuggers, sodbusters, defense hawks and Christian evangelicals” is coming together to advance farm-grown fuels and other alternatives to petroleum.
Patrick Mazzav

BIOFUELS and other forms of agriculturally-generated energy have reached a tipping point setting them on a path to become major 21st century energy sources. That was the key message that speaker after speaker told a record-breaking crowd at the 6th Annual “Harvesting Clean Energy” Conference in Spokane, Washington this February.
“A new energy economy is being born,” USDA Undersecretary for Rural Development Tom Dorr told the conference. “The age of cheap oil is passing. Our resource base is going to have to shift. The energy economy is changing in ways that offer extraordinary opportunity for rural America.” The USDA’s top rural development official, himself an Iowa corn farmer whose involvement in ethanol stretches back to the 1970s, added, “Most of the new energy sources are rural-based. Development of these new opportunities has presented the greatest rural economic opportunity in my lifetime.”
A major factor driving that opportunity is “a sea change in attitudes” on the nation’s vulnerability to oil shocks and need for dramatic advances in biofuels and vehicle technology, said conference keynoter and former Central Intelligence Director James Woolsey. “I think we’re starting to get through. Some combination of 9-11 plus $60 per barrel oil has begun to get a lot of people’s attention, most notably the president’s.”
Dangers of that addiction were driven home just three days before Woolsey’s talk when terrorists attempted to disrupt the world’s largest oil facility, Abqaiq in Saudi Arabia. Woolsey, who has held high-level national security positions in both Republican and Democratic Administrations, said “… if that strike had succeeded we would have well over $100 a barrel oil …”
Record attendance of 582 at the Northwest’s premier annual conference on farm energy production was evidence of booming interest in producing fuels and electricity as agricultural commodities. The conference came as the Washington Legislature was moving to set a minimum standard for use of biodiesel and ethanol in vehicle fuels, and weeks after President Bush’s State of the Union announcement of new support for biofuels and other alternatives to what the president called the U.S. oil addiction.
Woolsey pointed out an unusual coalition, including “do-gooders, treehuggers, sodbusters, defense hawks and Christian evangelicals,” is coming together to further farm-grown fuels and other alternatives to petroleum.
A powerful manifestation of new political forces coming to play, the 25×25 Coalition, was detailed by Read Smith, national co-chair and Washington farmer. The effort came out of an AgEnergy Working Group of U.S. farm leaders convened by Energy Future Coalition in 2004: “We concluded that agriculture can play a major role in the energy industry, a monumental and historic role.”
Smith spelled out the coalition’s goal, from which its name derives: “By 2025, America’s working lands will produce 25 percent of the energy used in the U.S. while still producing food and fiber.” The coalition now aims to enlist at least half of Congress in supporting the 25×25 goal by election 2006, and plans state 25×25 groups in at least 20 states.
“We need to create nonpartisan alliances to change U.S. energy policy,” Smith said. “Post 9-11, groups inside the beltway, hawks and doves, sat down and said we don’t agree on much, but we do agree America needs a new energy paradigm. If ever there was an issue that could unite Republicans and Democrats, blues and greens, hawks and doves, it’s this. Here’s an opportunity that benefits everyone.”
Entrepreneurial solutions are emerging that make it highly feasible to produce substantial portions of vehicle fuels with crops and agricultural wastes, noted Woolsey, a member of the National Commission on Energy Policy. The bipartisan commission has mapped out a strategy that would enable replacement of at least half of U.S. gasoline consumption in 20 years. Woolsey outlined the three-part strategy. He emphasized that unlike other proposed alternatives such as hydrogen, it will meet three crucial tests – be compatible with existing infrastructure, be relatively inexpensive, and employ cheap feedstocks.
First, promote technologies to improve U.S. average car and light truck mileage to 40 mpg. That is less than averages in Europe and Japan today.
Second, make all vehicles flexible fuel, meaning they could run on up to 85 percent ethanol and switch back and forth between gasoline and ethanol. Cost would be $100 per car. Woolsey noted that from 2003-2005, Brazil increased its share of new flex fuel vehicles from five percent to 75 percent. The U.S. already has five million flex fuel vehicles.
Third, improve switchgrass energy crop productivity to 10 tons per acre from the current five, “not at all a stretch,” and use enzymes to process plant matter into cellulose-based ethanol. “You wouldn’t need any more land than the 30 million acres now in the conservation reserve land bank,” added Woolsey. Farmers would just need to mow the grasses now already growing on the land.
Woolsey also pointed out massive potential for replacing diesel fuel in new thermal processing technologies that can convert any organic matter into an oil substitute. He noted the technology is already operating at the Changing World Technologies plant in Carthage, Missouri, which makes 200-300 barrels of oil substitute daily from turkey plant renderings. Conoco uses the product to make renewable diesel.
While concerns over competition between food and fuel crops held back earlier mass biofuels development, with the new technologies that process cellulose and waste, “We’re moving away from using food,” Woolsey said. So agriculturally generating massive amounts of fuel becomes practical.
“The time is now. The stars have aligned. There is no reason we cannot produce clean, alternative fuels,” Washington Agriculture Director Valoria Loveland told the conference. “These are good opportunities for farms to become profitable again.”
“We’re in a different climate today,” said Jim Fisher, one of the U.S. Department of Energy’s leading authorities on energy efficiency and renewable power. “For the first time in my 40-year career, there’s a feeling of something really happening. People are seriously looking at a bio industry from plants to products.”
“Twenty-five years of R&D is paying off in the marketplace today,” Washington State University Renewable Resource Specialist David Sjoding said. “Renewable energy prices are falling while fossil energy prices are going up. The rural Pacific Northwest has opportunities knocking at the door. We have not seen this kind of rural economic opportunity in decades.”
Washington State University’s Craig Frear presented findings from what was described as the most comprehensive survey of biomass potential done in any U.S. state. The study found 17 million dry tons annually, enough to generate 15.5 billion kilowatt hours, half the residential power load in Washington. Frear emphasized, “This is a snapshot of the present,” and believes the figure could easily grow. Frear also called out the finding that 84 percent of Washington biomass is cellulose. “One of the keys, especially for Washington state, is to develop cellulosic technology.”
Patrick Mazza is Research Director at Climate Solutions based in Olympia, Washington. He can be contacted at 219 Legion Way, S.W., Suite 201, Olympia, Washington 98501. E-mail

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