14 Feb UW-Madison dean predicts bio-economy will fuel Wisconsin
Madison, Wis. – Molly Jahn is a realist, and she’s telling anyone within ear shot that Wisconsin has a realistic chance to lead the drive toward energy independence.
The new dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Jahn believes Wisconsin can leverage existing economies and industries to grow an emerging one – biofuels.
She’s well aware of criticism that Wisconsin (and the nation) shouldn’t devote its sole energy focus to alternative fuels, and she doesn’t necessarily disagree that a comprehensive approach is best. It’s just that Wisconsin has so much potential in this area that it should lead rather than follow the biofuels parade.
Gov. Jim Doyle has proposed the allocation of $40 million in his 2007-2009 budget to create an Office of Energy Independence and develop renewable energy – solar, wind, hydrogen, biodiesel, and ethanol – with the goal of generating 25 percent of Wisconsin’s power and transportation fuels from renewable sources by 2025.
The bulk of this allocation will be $30 million in grants and loans to companies and researchers that are developing new technologies to increase renewable energy. Jahn, a plant genetics researcher who came to UW-Madison from Cornell University, and CALS, which is working to bring a new federal bioenergy R&D center to Wisconsin, are in a position to make such a contribution.
“The governor’s emphasis is extremely well placed,” she said. “The economic implications for getting this right in Wisconsin will be huge.”
Pieces in place
In Jahn’s view, Wisconsin has a chance to be not just a leader in biofuels, but a pre-eminent one. She cited the state’s industrial, agricultural, forestry, and academic research sectors as the natural components of a bio-economy, and she believes the raw material from agriculture and forestry will help the state make the transition from corn-based ethanol to the next generation represented by cellulosic ethanol.
This “G2” ethanol will be produced from naturally abundant biomass material – crops and crop residue, forest residue, grasses, and animal wastes.
In the continental United States, an estimated 500 to 600 tons of biomass is produced annually, and Wisconsin will have points of engagement across several industries. The billions of dollars that states like Wisconsin, and especially California, spend fighting forest fires that are fed by excess biomass, material that could be harvested to produce energy, is but one benefit, she said.
The prospect of an energy-producing use for industry waste is another, so in addition to producing biofuels from agricultural products like corn and soybeans, businesses like the Flambeau River Paper Mill near Park Falls will play a role, too.
“Rapidly, we will see a shift to producing ethanol from other biological material,” Jahn said. “Cellulosic ethanol represents an exciting possibility for the state and its paper industry, which will benefit from making ethanol from pulp.”
Jahn also likes the synergistic way bioenergy taps different sectors of CALS – research, agriculture, and natural resources – which has more than 2,200 undergraduate students that could serve biofuel internships. Bioenergy also taps into other campus facilities like the federal Forest Products Laboratory.
Alternative fuels: Not the only alternative
When it comes to meeting future energy needs, not everyone is sold on alternative fuels. The contrarian argument goes something like this: why should the United States place all of its emphasis on alternative forms of energy which, at best, will help around the margins, barely keeping up with the increase in gasoline demand over time? Better to get serious about nuclear power and domestic oil production, especially when the United States now imports 60 percent of its oil from abroad.
Jahn did not endorse that prescription, but she maintains that biofuels will be an important piece of the puzzle for energy and beyond, a reference to industrial and other products that can be produced with biomass.
“For practical and long-term reasons, we can certainly broaden the [energy] choices in a variety of ways,” she acknowledged.
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