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State could play big role in future of ‘bioenergy’

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Gary Radloff
February 25, 2008

“If scientists are successful, America could someday derive as much as one-half of its transportation fuels from bio-mass such as crop wastes, leaves, wood and grasses.


With the rural Midwest sitting on half of the nation’s 1 billion tons of surplus, low-cost biomass on its croplands, pasturelands and forests, could we be the future energy producer that powers America’s cars and trucks?


And what would the Midwest rural economy look like if more than $1 billion a day, now spent on imported petroleum, starts flowing here?


Those were the questions posed recently by the Midwest Ag Energy Network Summit, a gathering of more than 140 agriculture, energy and rural development experts who met in Madison to look at the Midwest—and America’s—“bioenergy” future.


Bioenergy offers enormous benefits. On an energy-unit basis, biomass is cheaper than a barrel of crude oil—and home-produced fuel means the money stays home instead of being exported to foreign countries, many of which do not have U.S. interests at heart.


Bioenergy is excellent energy security policy, sound foreign policy and excellent economic policy. If we do this right, it could fundamentally alter the Midwest’s economy.


To do this “right,” however, we need to ask tough questions of ourselves. Who wins? Who loses? What amount of biomass can we safely remove from the land? (Contrary to some criticisms, we won’t level our forests. The whole idea is to produce energy that is sustainable.) Who regulates it to make sure? Can bio-energy compete with oil, whose price is controlled by a dictator-dominated cartel?


These aren’t easy questions. Nor are the answers easy. But if we’ve learned one thing in the past few years, it is that we have to plan for our energy future, which means using energy more efficiently and developing new energy sources.


Biofuels are only one answer. But they’re already playing a role. Iowa’s ethanol industry is now 7 percent of the state’s total economic activity. Wisconsin produces a fourth of what Iowa produces, but we’re expanding.


Wisconsin is also the epicenter of a new generation of research to turn plant matter into ethanol alcohol fuel. If our new Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center at UW-Madison is successful, we could double President Bush’s goal of 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022—a target that could put America close to energy independence.


We don’t know what our bioenergy future will look like. But we do know change is upon us. For a century, we’ve relied on fossil fuels to move people and power factories. As those fuels increase in price and load the atmosphere with carbon, we need solutions.


The Midwest lies in the heart of those solutions. The Midwest Ag Energy Network Summit was created to ask the tough questions—and start us thinking about the right answers.


Gary Radloff is chairman of this year’s Midwest Ag Energy Network Summit and is policy director for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Readers can reach him at Gary.radloff@wisconsin.gov or (608) 224-5020.

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