11 Oct Biofuels surge forward
Wisconsin’s energy future may include more biobased fuels to reduce the state’s reliance on imported oil and reinvigorate rural economies. A recent policy initiative, consortium and related bill from Madison explore ethanol use and production expansion and try to incorporate major industrial sectors into the alternative energy market.
“The ultimate objective [of the consortium] is to find out where in that whole mix is Wisconsin’s competitive advantage,” said Pat Meier, director of the Consortium on Biobased Industry. “The reason we start with corn-based ethanol is because the technology is there, it’s proven, it’s profitable, and it’s working, and so that becomes a platform from which to build.”
The consortium will present recommendations to Gov. Jim Doyle next May on how to pursue biofuel production utilizing the Wisconsin Competitive Advantage Report; a highlight of the state’s strengths. Currently, Meier believes Wisconsin’s agriculture and forest industries, fueled by an educated workforce and the University of Wisconsin’s research capabilities, can create a leading biobased sector.
Five ethanol plants, located in the rural communities of Moroe, Friesland, Oshkosh, Stanley and Plover, produce 170 million gallons of ethanol fuel per year. A plant in Boyceville set to open next August is expected to contribute an additional 40 million gallons annually.
Although on the rise, Wisconsin’s ethanol production still trails five other Midwestern states, averaging over 700 million gallons per year, according to the Renewable Fuels Association. Minnesota produces about 440 million gallons per year from a dozen plants and currently mandates all standard grade gas contain 10 percent ethanol, but intends to at least double that mark by 2012.
To encourage ethanol use, a Wisconsin State Assembly bill (AB 15) would mandate all regular grade gasoline sold for automotive consumption contain 10 percent ethanol. That would effectively extend to the entire state the Environmental Protection Agency’s current regulations in six southeastern Wisconsin counties. If passed, the law would increase Wisconsin’s demand for ethanol and create another considerable market for corn and, potentially, for field residues — corn stalks with little nutritional or commercial value.
Ethanol is usually created from corn, an abundant crop that is not only a food commodity but, also, a widely used resource in manufacturing and other industries. Corn is the predominant input because it is profitable, but ethanol can also be produced from many other types of organic material including corn stalks or wood, which have fewer commercial uses and are often discarded, said Tom Jeffries, a bacteriologist at UW-Madison.
“You then can add enzymes to [the corn stalks] and hydrolyze the residues. That second stage of hydrolyzing the residues is something that I think can be made to work technically. The question is the cost of the enzyme. There are people in this country and elsewhere that think they can do it economically,” Jeffries said.
With economic advantages or technological advancements, Wisconsin’s forestry, paper and dairy industries could play large roles contributing organic material for ethanol. Slash material discarded in timber harvests and black liquor created by paper mills are two more potential sources of ethanol. Also, the byproduct, dry distiller grain solids, can be purchased by area farmers to feed dairy herds, Jeffries said.
“One of the unique things of the Wisconsin program is we’re not just focusing on corn, we’re not even just focusing on the agriculture sector. We’re looking at agriculture and forestry,” Meier said of the consortium’s agenda.
Lost in some of the technical aspects of ethanol production are the potential gains for Wisconsin farmers and rural communities. Benefits of ethanol production include increased markets for agricultural and forest leftovers, integrated cooperatives manufacturing biobased energy and demand for more skilled labor. “That’s one of the key drivers; it has the potential to reinvigorate a lot of rural Wisconsin,” Meier said.
But ethanol is not without controversy. Critics of ethanol production denounce the fuel’s net energy cost and exhaust of the ozone producing molecules, nitrous oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC’s). A recent Department of Natural Resources study concluded burning ethanol in automobiles would increase discharge of these elements, a fact accepted by researchers.
More contested, though, is the contention that corn-derived ethanol consumes more energy to produce than is created in biofuel. Many past estimates labeled ethanol with net energy losses, but since the mid-1990s most studies indicate technological advancement makes ethanol production a net energy balance winner.
“The energy balance issue is a fraud,” Meier said. “The U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Energy both put out research reports that show the energy balance of [corn] ethanol is positive.”
“It’s a net energy gain,” Jeffries said. “I think that is quite clear. And I think that in the long run that’s just going to get better and better. In addition to not paying for gasoline from outside the state, it also gives us an internal renewable source of energy which is basically solar.”
Beyond ethanol production, having a strong bio-energy sector could lead to future advancements in other alternative energy sources, researchers believe. A hydrogen energy economy, perceived as the real solution to fossil fuel dependence, may be achievable in the near future with financial and scientific dedication, Meier said.
“Ethanol, theoretically at least, can become a feedstock to be processed into hydrogen. There’s a lot of hydrogen in ethanol. So we’re looking at products not just today that are profitable, but lead to different things over the next 10 to 20 years. And if Wisconsin can become a big producer of ethanol, we’ll have a lot of advantages in that market,” Meier said, hopeful the consortium and ethanol production can lead to a renewable and responsible energy future for Wisconsin.
See previous WTN coverage on biofuels:
• Governor wants $2 million for biofuels in budget
• Wisconsin’s biobased industries could be world leader
• Environmental group works to run cars on Culver’s old frying oil