Midwest is full of promising second-generation biofuels

Stateline Midwest ~ January 2012

The benefits of using biomass residuals — the byproducts from activities such as agriculture and forestry — as an energy source are clear for the Midwest.


Both plentiful and a potentially low-cost source of fuel, biomass residuals are also less controversial than traditional corn ethanol because they are not a source of food or feed. Turning stover (the stalks, leaves and cobs that remain in corn fields after the grain is produced) into ethanol or using anaerobic digesters on livestock farms to generate bioenergy from animal manure are seemingly win-win propositions — more income for agricultural producers, new home-grown energy sources, and environmental protections for states and their communities.

But as Steve Brick, a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, notes, there are technological, logistical and cost hurdles to overcome in order to expand the use of these energy sources.

And he says states are in a position to help.

In a recent report, Brick makes a series of recommendations that he says are modest in scope and that could be acted on now. “Harnessing the Power of Biomass Residuals: Opportunities and Challenges for Midwestern Renewable Energy”focuses on the six Great Lakes states, but its recommendations and conclusions are applicable to the entire Midwest.

Brick identifies three policy strategies in particular that he believes would help the region tap into the full potential of biomass resources, which he estimates could make up 14 percent of the Great Lakes region’s electricity generation or 17 percent of its vehicle fuel.

State policies to spur development
The first of those policy areas is improving manure management on dairy and livestock operations.

“If we take steps to use manure [from these operations] as a feedstock for various energy streams, we can create energy and minimize the threat to the waters of the region,” Brick says.

In the Great Lakes region, less than 10 percent of the large animal operations currently have some kind of energy management system for manure.

“We clearly have a tremendous potential to increase that number,” Brick says.

New state regulations or economic incentives could expand the use of anaerobic digesters at these facilities, and could be promoted as a way not only to boost energy production, but to reduce odors and nonpoint source water pollution. One policy strategy highlighted in the report is the development of nutrient-trading markets: allowing farmers to earn water quality credits for certain management practices and selling these credits to pollutant dischargers.

Secondly, Brick encourages the region’s policymakers “to think about how the region’s corn farmers can get positioned to participate in a second-generation biofuels industry, one that would rely on the corn stover.”

Research into making ethanol from corn stover is already well funded, but Brick says there is a logistical problem largely being ignored: “how best to coordinate the grain harvest and the movement of stover.”
Research into this problem could be handled by a group of states.

Another challenge is limiting the reliance on corn stover as a source for conserving soil quality and preventing erosion. New incentives may be needed for farmers to change their tillage practices, thus freeing up more stover to be used as a fuel source.

“The research done so far suggests that we can remove about a third of the corn stover off the fields and not compromise soil quality,” Brick says. “But that’s an average, and averages can be misleading.”

Lastly, Brick cites efforts such as Wisconsin’s Working Lands Initiative as an example of a third effort that can be undertaken by states: employing a “landscape vision” for how to conserve agricultural land and use its resources.

Too often, Brick says, we think of bioenergy resources as if they were coal or oil and, as a result, “tend to ignore the land-air-water-wildlife-human interactions that take place on the landscape.”

“When we ignore these interactions, we make unrealistic decisions about what can be done about bioenergy,” he says.

Brick cautions that there are limitations to biomass, with one of the most significant constraints being the fact that it is not a highly concentrated energy resource.

“You have to transport it some distance to use it,” Brick says. “It’s very easy for those transportation distances to get too long to make a project cost-effective.”

Knowing where there are natural concentrations of biomass, then, becomes essential when deciding where to locate new bioenergy facilities.

Northern Wisconsin, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and the northeastern part of Minnesota are all home to high concentrations of forestry residue. The report also cites seven places in the six-state Great Lakes region where, within a 40-mile radius, there are about a million tons of stover a year that could be harvested — the amount of feedstock that Brick says is needed to support a biorefinery.