Agricultural economists see rural power systems based on biomass

Source: Daniel Cusick, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, March 13, 2014

Millions of tons of farm wastes could fuel a new kind of electricity generation and delivery system that would cater to rural areas where the prospect of building long transmission systems is economically difficult, new research by agricultural economists in Missouri and Illinois suggests.Such a power grid would rely on biomass-fueled generators that can be built at relatively low cost and be linked to end-users via regional distribution grids, according to the researchers, who recently published apaper on the concept in the journal Biomass & Bioenergy.”Farmers already have access to a large amount of biomass material left over each year after harvests,” said Tom Johnson, an agricultural economist at the University of Missouri, in a release from the school. “If they had access to small biomass power plants, they could become close to self-sustaining in terms of power.”

Such biomass plants, if configured with on-ramps to broader transmission networks, could also provide power to other parts around the country, helping to stabilize the national power grid and provide a boon for rural economies, Johnson added.

In a telephone interview, Johnson said the development of biomass power plants in farm country is not unlike other forms of distributed generation, such as rooftop solar panels, where traditional consumers of electricity become power producers and even sellers of electricity when supply exceeds local demand.

“You start to change the economic balance as well as the energy balance in some of these areas,” he said.

The research, co-authored by Southern Illinois University agribusiness economist Ira Altman, comes two years after the Obama administration released its “National Bioeconomy Blueprint,” a document intended to help spur innovation and technology commercialization within a wide variety of bioscience applications, including bioenergy.

Fuel left on the ground

And while much of the nation’s renewable energy policy discussions have focused on moving abundant wind and solar resources from rural areas to urban load centers, less attention has been paid to renewable energy demand within rural areas, where farms and other enterprises are both producers and consumers of energy.

Johnson and Altman’s research seeks to address the national importance of the bioeconomy, whose expansion “is inevitable because of the limits on non-renewable resources, especially energy, and the increasing imperative that we reduce atmospheric carbon,” according to the research paper.

But the researchers’ central message is that “the bioeconomy will transform the economies of rural areas,” according to the paper. This is in part because the consumption of locally produced biomass will greatly reduce costs associated with the transport of energy fuels or electricity into rural areas. “To the extent that rural areas become producers of their own bioenergy, they save in both directions,” Johnson and Altman write in the paper.

The development of farm-based biomass energy plants could also help diversify rural economies by attracting other businesses, such as manufacturers that “will find rural areas more attractive because of their lower prices for energy.”

Finally, the authors note that a greater focus on converting farm waste into energy “generally offers more environmental benefits than converting food to fuel,” which has been one of the primary criticisms of corn-based ethanol.

Lastly, the authors note that successful development of waste-to-energy plants will require both government and private-sector engagement to encourage innovation and investment in farm-based power generation and distribution as well as policies that recognize the value of waste materials as energy fuels.

Such policies include mechanisms to ensure an equitable distribution of the rewards from investing in such projects; otherwise, local citizens risk becoming impoverished by the destruction of renewable resources and potential environmental degradation, Johnson said in the release.