Step Up Biofuels Research and Development

The twin imperatives of achieving energy independence and reining in greenhouse-gas emissions create a tremendous national challenge.

Published: 04-Jan-2005

It's not much of a stretch to say that Iowa feeds the nation. In a generation - with appropriate focus and investment - Iowa could fuel much of the nation.

The twin imperatives of achieving energy independence and reining in greenhouse-gas emissions create a tremendous national challenge and a tremendous opportunity for Iowa.

A new report by the bipartisan National Commission on Energy Policy outlines a broad strategy for steering the United States toward increased energy efficiency, decreased greenhouse emissions and stepped-up development of alternative, renewable fuels.

Of specific interest to Iowa: The report recommends substantial increases in federal funding for research and development of biofuels. The government would invest $1.5 billion over 10 years to develop cost-efficient, commercial-scale technology for converting plant material and wastes to ethanol and biodiesel.

Congress should OK the funds. And Iowa should continue targeting funds and incentives to position itself as a national leader in producing renewable fuel from agriculture.

Iowa already leads the way in producing fuel ethanol from corn. In 2003, domestically produced corn ethanol displaced 2 percent of U.S. gasoline consumption.

Large-scale production of cellulosic ethanol poses potential for even greater benefits. Cellulosic refers to woody or fibrous plant material such as grass, cornstalks, straw or treetops and branches left after logging. Cultivating such feedstocks takes relatively little energy, and you can co-produce electricity while making fuel.

The research-and-development funding would also target other biomass initiatives. Biomass is any organic material used as an energy source, including animal waste or methane from sewage.

So Iowa could take the stuff it has plenty of - like cornstalks - and needs to get rid of - like animal waste - and use it to fuel the nation's future. Large-scale production of biofuels would expand markets for the state's crops and generate jobs. Plus, our universities' strengths in plant and animal sciences give Iowa a head start in becoming a national research center.

If that all sounds pie in the sky - the state's wastes become its economic engine - it is and it isn't. Cellulosic ethanol is not yet price-competitive with gasoline and isn't produced anywhere on a commercial scale, the commission said. That's why research-and-development funding is so critical.

Experts think it's doable. The national Ag Energy Work Group has said agriculture can produce 25 percent of total U.S. energy consumption by 2025. Ron Heck, a Perry farmer and member of the group's steering committee, thinks the goal can be met, if research funding is stepped up and regulatory bottlenecks can be overcome.

Small-scale projects also are showing it's doable, like those at the Biomass Energy CONversion facility in Nevada. And the Chariton Valley Biomass Project is working to co-fire native switchgrass with coal to produce electricity.

The state must continue channeling grants to research and demonstration projects and adopt tax credits for farms and businesses producing renewable energy, at least early on. (It should also continue supporting energy production from wind, but that's another editorial.)

At the mid-point of the first decade of the 21st century, the world is coming to the end of the age of oil. Iowa can help lead the nation in developing and producing the fuels that will power growth for the rest of the century.

Funding research

How can a cash-strapped Congress come up with the $1.5 billion needed for biofuels research and development? The National Commission on Energy Policy proposes establishing a cap-and-trade system for limiting growth in emissions of greenhouse gases.

In 2010, the government would begin issuing permits for such emissions. Most would be free to existing emitters, but a small pool, starting at 5 percent, would be auctioned for increased emissions. That would raise an expected $36 billion over 10 years.

Emission reductions would be far less than those required by the Kyoto Protocol, which the Bush administration rejected because of fears it would undercut economic growth.

Bob Mulqueen, policy analyst with the Iowa Environmental Council, welcomed the cap-and-trade proposal. It recognizes the dangers of greenhouse-gas emissions and starts the process of curbing them, while raising funds to accelerate the shift to renewable energy.

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