Report Touts ‘Cow Power’ and More

Virent, a CAPCO program company in Wisconsin, is researching how to convert corn stover to jet fuel:

The Midwest can seize an advantage when it comes to developing homegrown energy on the farm, a new report says.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs says the region’s abundance of farms can point the region toward procuring more energy from waste streams – whether that means from grease and oil from restaurants, corn stalks and cobs left over from the corn crop, or manure from dairy farms.

“Cellulosic biofuels represent a potentially substantial economic opportunity for the Midwest and could also have a larger impact on the U.S. energy supply mix,” the report says.

Wisconsin’s a national leader in the production of energy from manure from dairy cows – initiatives that help farmers deal with a waste that’s linked to phosphorus pollution in the state’s rivers and lakes.

“The Midwest has an opportunity to harness the biomass residuals as a new source of energy and, in so doing, set an example for future energy initiatives that will hopefully someday be a feature of broader U.S. energy policy discussions,” said Rachel Bronson, vice president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Stephen Brick, a senior fellow at the council, will present findings of the report on biomass energy opportunities on Monday in Madison.

The study centers on so-called residuals, such as cow manure and corn stover – stalks, cobs and leaves left over after the harvest – because these are biomass resources that would be less controversial feedstocks than either food grains or dedicated energy crops.

Wisconsin is the leader nationally in manure digesters, also known as anaerobic digesters, but Pennsylvania and New York are catching up, according to a recent report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

There is still plenty of room for growth, with just about 10% of the Dairy State’s large farms using digesters to help manage their manure and produce energy, said Joe Kramer, a researcher at the Energy Center of Wisconsin in Madison.

More broad-based investment is needed, but action is taking place, said Gary Radloff, head of the Wisconsin Bioenergy Initiative.

“You’re seeing these little pockets of interest as people realize you can spend an awful lot of money on managing waste by sending it to a landfill and a wastewater treatment plant, or put the money into a digester and do something positive,” he said.

Wisconsin is also seeing small farms adding digesters, with three Dane County farms teaming up on a regional “cow power” project that opened this year.

“Some people call waste the stuff that’s left over,” Radloff said. “But if we can take the things that are left over and convert them to energy or have them reused in some way, that’s how you get to sustainability: no waste.”

The biggest challenges, those in the industry say, remain financing. Banks need to start lending, Radloff said. Leo Maney of Pieper Power, which operates Clear Horizons digesters in Wisconsin, says utilities agreeing to pay a premium for renewable electricity from digesters would be a big plus that would create more demand.

Statewide policies that provide incentives for digesters or encourage utilities to buy power from digesters would be helpful, Radloff said.

Wisconsin could also look to replicate Vermont’s “Cow Power” program, in which customers agree to pay a little extra to ensure their energy comes straight from their local dairy farm.

“Something like that may play well in Wisconsin, given that we’re the Dairy State,” Kramer said.

Another key resource for the region is corn stalks, cobs and leaves. They are one of the potential sources for biofuels, such as those being developed by Virent Inc. in Madison. Virent received an award of up to $13.4 million from the U.S. Department of Energy for research to convert corn stover to jet fuel.

Brick’s report outlines a variety of hurdles that need to be overcome before widespread adoption of stover can be counted on. Those include dealing with the logistics of how to collect the stover without adding substantial capital and operating costs to the farmer, as well as ensuring that too much stover is not collected. Stover’s principal use needs to remain as a nutrient for the soils on farmers’ lands.

“The big question is how much of our stover should we think of as being available for use in ethanol production?” Brick said.

“Right now in most of our corn production in the Corn Belt, the stover is returned to the soil, and it’s often the only organic material that routinely goes back into the soil,” acting as a nutrient and preventing runoff.

“So what we don’t want to do is rush to develop an industry where we completely overuse these resources and inadvertently create worse soil erosion, reduced fertility and reduced soil carbon,” he said.

Brick’s report outlines a need for more research – studies that Radloff said fit in with the mission of the Great Lakes Center for Bioenergy Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The center is focused on sustainability and ensuring that the biofuels development occurs in a sustainable way.

View the original article on the Journal Sentinel Online.