Agricultural waste has major potential, and the conversation in the energy sector is rolling.
Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series looking at alternative energy issues that could impact agriculture.
From the perspective of biology, food is just a form of stored energy. When people count calories, after all, they are simply trying to calculate how much energy is present in a given meal. And yet, over and above the animals and plants farmers bring to market, the agricultural sector happens to produce massive amounts of energy it has yet to monetize fully — namely, the countless British thermal units, or BTU, of energy contained in the likes of crop residue and animal manure.
Thanks to rapid technological development, as well as new regulatory carrots and sticks, today’s energy companies are more eager than ever to work with farmers to capitalize on the moneymaking potential of such underused resources. Under certain conditions, they will pay farmers significant sums for the right to turn waste crops, grasses, weeds and manure — anything that has heat content — into energy.
Governments, too, are increasingly interested in partnering with farmers on such projects. The Department of Energy, for one, is a major provider of funding for basic and applied research in this area. Indeed, the farm bill, signed in February, provides nearly $900 million in dedicated funding for some of the nation’s most critical energy and job-creation programs, including the Rural Energy for America Program, the Bioenergy Program for Advanced Biofuels, the Biomass Crop Assistance Program, and the Community Wood Energy Program.
For farmers and farmer cooperatives interested in exploring these opportunities, the first step is to learn about the jargon and technologies in play. Key terms include “bio-energy” and “biomass.”
According to DOE, “Bioenergy is renewable energy made from any organic material from plants or animals. Sources of bioenergy are called ‘biomass’ and include agricultural and forestry residues.”
As DOE sees it, by 2030, hundreds of millions of dry tons of corn stover and wheat straw, in particular, along with crop residues from barley, oats and sorghum, could be sold for energy production each year in the U.S.
“Cordwood, wood pellets, wood chips, waste paper, along with dozens of other agricultural products and byproducts capable of being used for energy, are all examples of biomass fuel,” notes the Pellet Fuels Institute, which promotes the conversion of recycled wood waste into high-BTU pellets for heating homes, large-scale institutional environments such as schools and prisons, and more. In eastern Kentucky, they are working on a project that involves building a power plant to be fueled entirely by waste wood; negotiations with the regional electrical grid are underway.
Future of biogas
Biogas recovery systems are another potential source of income for farmers, including those with swine operations. They use a process called anaerobic digestion, which involves bacteria breaking down manure in oxygen-free environments, thus producing methane- and carbon dioxide-rich biogas, which can be burned to produce electricity, heat or hot water.
“Codigestion” describes a process in which multiple types of organic wastes are fed into a single digester, enabling higher methane output. U.S. EPA’s AgSTAR program, a voluntary outreach and educational endeavor that promotes the recovery and use of methane from animal manure, has compiled a list of online resources for those who are interested in employing such systems.
The rise of these technologies is good news for both agriculture and the environment. It illustrates how, as a society, we are learning that there are more productive ways to take care of a problem than just ignoring it or fighting it. With the right business model and a little technological know-how, you can convert problem waste into profitable, clean energy.
Roy M. Palk can be contacted at Roy.Palk@LeClairRyan.com.
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