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Global energy demand dictates the future of Wisconsin biofuels

Madison, Wis. - When Wisconsin-based economist David Ward thinks about the future of biofuels, his mind puts him behind the wheel of a brand-new Tata.

If you live in India, or follow the auto-show circuit, you might know that the Tata is a car…a really small car. Tata Motors “Nano” model is about 10 feet long, runs on a two-cylinder gasoline engine, and costs about $2,500. It is designed to appeal to India's growing middle class, for whom automobile ownership was out of the question even a decade ago.

So, what does a tiny gasoline-powered car have to do with biofuels? Supply and demand. India today has about 80 million registered vehicles (including two-wheelers and buses) with a population of 1.13 billion. As more Indians can afford cars, even a fuel-efficient Tata Nano, that means more pressure on existing world petroleum supplies and higher prices. And higher prices for oil means more demand for alternative fuels - including biofuels.

Getting behind the economics of biofuels and discovering how Wisconsin can best position itself for their future is the theme of “Wisconsin Biofuels Destiny: Fuel, fiber and forest products for the 21st century,” to be held April 16-17 at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

Ward, president of NorthStar Economics, is one of the conference organizers, along with Rusk Prairie Consulting, the Wisconsin Technology Council and TAPPI, an organization of paper and pulp industry professionals. For Ward, it's an opportunity to position Wisconsin for the inevitable clash of energy demand and available supplies of fuel, especially for motor vehicles.
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“I don't care if it's just a two-cylinder engine in India, we have unleashed in the developing part of the world - India, China, and beyond - a tremendous thirst for energy,” Ward said. “The long-term die is cast; $100 per barrel oil has been with us long enough to demonstrate that.”

Wisconsin's natural biofuel laboratory

While some question the long-term economics of corn-based ethanol, others suggest the pricing for that particular fuel will move beyond subsidies and become a more efficient source. Others believe new sources, such as cellulosic ethanol, represent the next generation.

Cellulosic ethanol is produced from woody plants, wood waste and other non-food plants. Scientists believe the amount of energy used to produce a gallon of cellulosic ethanol is many times smaller than the energy used to produce a gallon of corn-based ethanol; the opposite is true for the energy those respective gallons can release.

But producing cellulosic ethanol by the millions of gallons is the current problem, while corn-based ethanol is already at the pump. And other technologies on the scene may make it possible to produce gasoline from sugars, which could also prove remarkably efficient.

Still, Wisconsin is a natural laboratory for cellulosic ethanol. It boasts millions of acres of forest land, the nation's largest paper and pulp industry and the ability to turn otherwise fallow or underused lands into sources of woody fuel. The U.S. Department of Energy has also invested heavily in Wisconsin through the $125 million Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, which will look for ways to remove the technological bottlenecks in large-scale production of cellulosic ethanol. The U.S. Forests Products Laboratory has been a fixture in Wisconsin for nearly a century - and the state also has more than its share of engine expertise, from the automotive industry to small engine companies.

The conference will seek to connect the dots over a day and a half at UW-Stevens Point. The dinner speaker on April 16 is Dr. Timothy Donohue, principal investigator and scientific director for the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center. Donohue is also director of the Wisconsin Bioenergy Initiative.

Four working sessions on April 17 will focus on the economics of biofuels, the effects of bioenergy initiatives at the federal and state level, Wisconsin's “green portfolio,” and the technology and product potential of forest biorefinery. The conference will close with a facilitated working session in which all registrants will be invited to participate. To register and to learn more, go to this web page.

Ideal scenario

“The scenario right now is ideal for Wisconsin,” said Ward, who has worked with several of the state's regional economic development groups on biofuels initiatives. “We have the ingredients to make this work.”

And if you doubt it, imagine 200 million Indians driving Tatas.

Recent articles by Tom Still

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Tom Still: On science and technology, candidates reveal differences - and similarities

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Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC.

WTN accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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