With $60 a barrel oil and $3 gasoline looming in the future, the need for energy independence is rising as hot topic in Washington, DC, but the answer might lie on America's farms. That's the vision behind the 25x25 Ag Energy Working Group, formed to help achieve a goal of 25% renewable energy use by 2025. The group is looking at how the ag sector can play a role in filling rising energy needs both for liquid fuel and for electricity.
During a conference call Wednesday morning, the group outlined some of its key mission objectives, and talked about what's next for the group as it moves beyond the startup phase and pushes ahead with its vision. The call, which included board members from the group, also had Jim Woolsey, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and now a staunch supporter of technologies that could bring energy independence in time to meet the group's ambitious goal.
Moving past status quo
Woolsey started his remarks by talking about security issues, noting a nightmare scenario of an airplane crashing into sulfur towers at a refinery in Saudi Arabia that might take 6 million barrels a day offline for more than a year. Such an attack would "devastate the world's economy," Woolsey says.
He points to the need for oil substitutes using inexpensive feedstocks, such as animal wastes and dead animals to replace transportation fuel. But he notes any replacement should use the existing fuel-delivery infrastructure. "Hydrogen fuel cells offer promise, but you have to change the energy infrastructure," he says.
Instead, Woolsey points to use of cellulosic ethanol that uses switchgrass, or corn stover in place of grain to make the renewable fuel. Despite recent studies - released by Cornell University and the University of California at Berkeley showing a negative energy balance for such fuels - Woolsey says these new-fangled fuels have merit.
"The National Energy Policy Commission has studies that show using one barrel of oil equivalent will produce 7 barrels of cellulosic ethanol," he notes. He disagrees with the Cornell, Berkeley work noting that corn-based ethanol currently on the market shows a greater than 30% reduction in global warming gas emissions.
More than soyoil and corn kernels
One of the biggest take-home messages from the call is that while the renewable energy business has come a long way to 4 billion gallons of ethanol use and a fast-rising biodiesel business. The feedstocks for these fuels will have to change. Woolsey notes that the oil industry isn't the only obstacle to some new-tech fuels in the works. Tax policies and other actions promoting methyl esters as the only types of biodiesel available won't help new technologies that use animal waste and farm byproducts.
He points out that 6 billion tons of animal waste, could be turned into 9 billion barrels of biodiesel in the future. That technology is now coming online using a new process that's going to work at a ConAgra plant in Carthage, Mo. Such technologies would more than meet current total diesel demand. While that's not likely to happen overnight, he warns it won't happen in the United States at all if policies don't change.
Bill Horan, Rockwell City, Iowa, is a 25x25 work group member, and long-time National Corn Growers Association member, notes that NCGA has a long-standing policy of promoting cellulosic ethanol production and has even earmarked research funds for the work. And he adds that any alternative fuel - if its going to work - must use the most economically viable feedstock.
The working group is entering the next phase of its work, which will include a comprehensive economic study of the renewable fuels business. That study, which has yet to be started, should be finished by year end. Read Smith, a St. John, Wash., farmer and working group member, points to future actions the group must take:
- Wnterface with the utility community - the established electricity grid makes starting new projects and tying them into the system can be difficult. The group hopes to work through those issues.
- Work on an inclusive economic analysis, examine all of the impacts of this 25x25 vision - the aim is to answer questions raised by the vision for different economic and energy-producing sectors of the economy.
- Expand communications outreach - find ways to reach out to the ag sector, and to the non-ag sector too.
- Strengthen political support for renewable energy - this is a long-term, ongoing project that needs to be nurtured every year
- Look for opportunities to provide that support - identify the policies, public policy decisions, and regional, state and local groups that can be part of the effort.
- engage and recruit new corporate sponsors and partners to join us in this effort - the group recently got an endorsement from the John Deere Company.
You can learn more about the work Woolsey referenced by visiting www.energycommission.org. Learn more about the 25x25 initiative by visiting www.agenergy.info.