We are now in the grips of a recession and gasoline price hovers around $2.50. We have just enjoyed one of the coolest summers with rains evenly spaced so lawns stayed green and crops look wonderful. Sooo…… previous concerns about oil shortage, the environment and global warming are less important, right?
However, public policy today strives for 25% of the nation’s energy to be derived from renewable sources by 2025. This article will address some of the research and the author’s opinions about renewable energy and the environment and our unique opportunities in Ohio.
At the August 20 th Crop, Soil and Water Field Night on Bioenergy at OSU South Centers, Piketon, Ohio the following were the topics: Biomass Crops; Algae as a Biofuel; Cover Crops and Bioenergy; Forest Management and Bioenergy and Field Experiments. Field experiments at Piketon are currently with warm season grasses (switch grass, big and little bluestem, Indian grass and Gamma grass). Future plans are to research larger grasses such as elephant grass and miscanthus. All of these grasses take at least 3 years to establish but once established stands will persist for 10 more years with 10 tons per acre per year of biomass production for the smaller grasses and up to 20 tons per year for the larger grasses. These yields are projected, and without fertilizer application. Researchers at Piketon hope to develop the most efficient and environmentally friendly biomass production system for marginal crop land where row crops can not be economically produced.
Extensive environmental, organic production and biomass crop production research is also being done at the Kellogg Biological Station run by Michigan State University near Battle Creek, Michigan. The authors attended an Upper Midwest Sustainable Food and Fuel Systems Seminar held there the last week of August. A major thrust at this facility is the measuring of “greenhouse” gasses from crop land. Researchers there measure emissions and absorption of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and other gasses. Methane emitted from primarily livestock facilities is 30 to 50 times worse than carbon dioxide as a contributor of global warming. Therefore, a farmer in Circleville, Ohio is paid for the carbon credits he gets for covering his manure lagoon and flaring off the methane.
However, nitrous oxide is 300 times worse than carbon dioxide as a contributor to global warming, so the researchers in Michigan are measuring the emissions of nitrous oxide from crop fields. Microbes in crop fields convert excess nitrogen to nitrous oxide that is emitted into the air. Michigan researchers are investigating the importance of nitrous oxide from crops for global warming. Depending on their results, future credits might be purchased from those farmers who reduce their nitrogen fertilization of corn.
For a greenhouse gas calculator for agricultural lands go to http://sebewa.kbs.msu.edu:4567/ For the Long-Term Ecological Research Program go to www.lternet.edu or for the work being done at Kellogg Biological Station go to www.lter.kbs.msu.edu For research done by Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center go to www.glbrc.org or for the work being done at the Kellogg Biological Station go to www.glbrc.msu.edu Other national centers funded by the U.S. Department of Energy on transformational biofuels research are at the Joint BioEnergy Institute at http://www.jbei.org/ and the BioEnergy Science Center at http://bioenergycenter.org/
Different feasibility of various alternative forms of energy are emerging across Ohio. For instance, in north western Ohio significant dollars are being paid to lease land for wind farms. Also, in Wyandot County the county farm is being awarded a lease contract for a solar farm. These projects are being located based on existing infrastructure capacity to handle the electricity generated by the wind and solar fields. Aditional information on the Wyandot County solar project can be found at http://wyandotcountyeconomicdevelopment.com and information on the wind energy generation projects can be found at http://www.ohiowind.org .
Several companies in Ohio, such as Algaeventure from Marysville http://www.algaevs.com/ and Ohio Biofuels from Dublin are investing significant dollars into bioenergy production from algae. On the Algaeventure web site above, it is claimed that “3.71% of Ohio’s farmland could produce Ohio’s total annual petroleum use.” and that “Algae-to-oil ……….. technology (will be) able to deliver more than 10 times the fuel per acre than any other bio-solution.” This technology was further developed from 1980 to 1995 by the U.S. Department of Energy-NREL Aquatic Species Program for microalgae oil production where oil was produced for $40 to $60/barrel. Then oil price was lower than that level, so was shelved. A summary of oil from algae can be found on the Power Point slides from the Piketon presentation by Laura Tiu at http://drop.io/biofuels or http://fairfield.osu.edu/agriculture-and-natural-resources/files/algae.ppt/view
Concerning an opportunity for south eastern Ohio and West Virginia, the most exciting energy news is that FirstEnergy Solutions Corporation is converting the coal-fired Burger Generation Facility on the Ohio River at Shadyside near Wheeling, West Virginia. For only this one power plant, 150,000 tons of biofuel will be needed in 2010, with 1.8 million tons per year needed by 2013. In 2010 those 150,000 tons of pre-processed biofuel will be co-fired with coal. In 2013 it is the intent for the plant to be solely fueled by biofuel.
For only the Burger Facility, the required biofuel can be sourced from wood waste from the industry. According to Damon Hartley, Program Specialist, Forest Products, OSU South Centers forest products and logging operations produce more than 2 million tons of wood waste per year, with 768,000 tons of mill waste plus 950,000 tons of logging waste (see http://fairfield.osu.edu/agriculture-and-natural-resources/files/biofldnite.ppt/view ). However, the price for such biofuel will have to outbid present prices paid for sawdust, wood chips, slabs and the cost of getting the logging waste from the forest to the plant. Further, if other plants choose to go the route of the Burger Plant, harvest of forest and crop biomass will be required to satisfy the demand for biofuel for electric generation plants on the Ohio River. Given that 20% of the coal based electric power generation in the US is along the Ohio River, the potential demand for biofuel is huge.
In the author’s opinion, wood biofuel in the Ohio River valley has the competitive edge for alternative fuel use in south eastern Ohio but wind and to a more limited extent, solar have a competitive edge in north western Ohio. The Ohio River is the epicenter of cheap, although dirty, electrical power generation with coal. If the Burger plant finds it to their advantage to utilize biofuel to clean up emissions while complying with renewable energy policy, that is a win, win. Likewise, the no carbon footprint of wind and solar make those a win, win. Better yet, the technology is already developed, unlike ethanol production from switch grass.
Further, the Ohio River on both sides is heavily forested so harvesting and transportation of a dense, energy rich product is lower cost than biomass crops. Wood fuel grows on it’s own without input, fertilization or management by man and is renewable and sustainable. Using wood biomass, solar and wind all have environmental benefits and carbon advantages. Wood burned for fuel is nearly carbon neutral and emissions are lower in sulfur than even the low sulfur coal burned now while wind and solar are carbon zero!
Managed in a sustainable manner, the use of woody biomass from our forests can provide timber stand improvement and improved growth and value of timber trees while utilizing for biofuel the weed trees and wood previously treated as waste. Such use of wood biomass can provide further benefit to south eastern Ohio and West Virginia communities by creating more local jobs in timber management and biomass harvesting, transportation and processing.
We in southeastern Ohio and West Virginia are well poised to utilize the renewable wood resources with which we are blessed while north western Ohio is well poised to take advantage of wind and solar energy.
Let us hope we can develop sustainable alternative energy. At the turn of the century Ohio was 95% forested. By the dust bowl days and the depression, forest land had been reduced to 35%. Now we have returned to 70% forested in southeastern Ohio. Let’s use this wonderful resource, but use it for the benefit of man, society and the environment.