Conference Highlights Ag's Role
by Steve Appel, Barry Bushue, Frank Priestley
Anyone who drives a car or heats a house knows that America faces a growing challenge because of the cost of oil and the volatility of the world market. But America's farmers may hold the key to meeting our future energy needs through the development of wind power and biofuels.
The cost of imported oil now accounts for about one-third of the U.S. trade deficit. Meanwhile, homegrown biofuels, including ethanol and biodiesel, supply less than 2 percent of U.S. car and truck fuel needs. Wind power generates less than 1 percent of U.S. electricity.
But a recent study by several universities and the Department of Agriculture has outlined a highly credible scenario for replacing gasoline with cellulose-based ethanol by 2050, along with producing significant amounts of plant-based diesel.
Researchers also envision new markets for crop residues that now pose a waste disposal problem for farmers. For example, the Iogen Corporation, which is planning the world's first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant in the Idaho Falls area, has already contracted with local growers for 400,000 dry tons of wheat and barley residues annually.
This new market for grass energy crops could increase U.S. farm returns by $5 billion over the next 20 years, and six times that by 2050.
Although wind power generates less than 1 percent of U.S. electricity, another recent study by Stanford University also shows far greater potential.
Measuring wind speeds for the first time at the 260-foot height of modern wind turbines, researchers found one-quarter of the nation is swept by winds capable of producing power at costs competitive with coal and natural gas generators. One member of the research team estimated the United States could generate one-third of its electricity from wind.
Virtually all of that wind-generated electricity would be produced in rural areas, providing substantial benefits for landowners from annual lease payments, and $500,000 to $1 million in local tax revenues for every 100 megawatts generated.
The Northwest is already in the game, producing hundreds of megawatts of wind power since the region's first wind farm opened in 1998, while the potential is in the thousands of megawatts. More wind energy will also take pressure off natural gas prices by reducing demand for gas-fired electricity, which will also benefit farmers since natural gas is a key fertilizer feedstock.
Still, realizing the potential of farm-produced energy will require public support, including standards for renewable fuels, a substantial effort to commercialize cellulosic ethanol, and national commitment to developing vehicles capable of using high-blend ethanol. Congress also needs to renew the production tax credit for wind and other renewable fuels.
Two national leaders in the effort to develop alternatives to foreign oil will address the sixth annual Harvesting Clean Energy Conference in Spokane on Feb. 27-28.
R. James Woolsey, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, will discuss how farmers can improve national security by building the nation's energy independence.
J. Read Smith, a Washington grain and cattle producer and co-chair of the Ag Energy Work Group, will explain the group's goal to have agriculture provide 25 percent of the energy consumed in the United States by 2025.
The conference, the Northwest's premier annual farm energy event, will also feature a host of other experts who will provide practical information for getting into the farm energy market.
For more information go to www.harvestcleanenergy.org
As American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman said recently, "The development of alternative energy sources is not only significant for the advancement of American agriculture, but also is vital to enhancing our nation's security."
We urge Northwest farmers to learn more about biofuels by attending the Harvesting Clean Energy Conference. Although a niche player in U.S. energy markets today, agriculture can play a major role in our energy future.
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