Green Acres is the Place to Be

By Chris Zygarlicke
As I vacationed in Wisconsin-God's country and my home state-I realized once again how important it is to develop cellulosic biomass technologies for energy and fuels. Driving along any highway in those parts revealed field after field of crops drowning in water. Many of my relatives were dairy farmers, so I understand that standing water in cornfields in June is not a good thing. True energy security cannot be met using commodity crops such as corn and soybeans for fuel. A diverse cellulosic biomass resource is more sustainable and, generally, more resistant to nature's surprises. Two conferences sponsored by the Energy & Environmental Research Center and BBI International held in the past few months are helping to stimulate the cellulose biomass industry. The inaugural International Biomass '08 Conference and Trade Show was held April 1517 in Minneapolis and the Biomass '08 Technical Workshop was held July 1516 in Grand Forks, N.D.

The Minneapolis event consisted of 63 speakers, more than 100 exhibitors, close to 1,000 attendees, and numerous side meetings, hospitality suite events and networking opportunities. An opportunity to tour the District Energy St. Paul combined heat and power plant was offered prior to the conference. The future of U.S. renewable energy electricity lies partly in smaller, distributed biomass systems. Europe is heading toward 20 percent renewable energy by 2020. As a result, a large amount of baseload renewable electricity is being installed, similar to the 25- to 50-megawatt biomass power system installed at the District Energy St. Paul plant. This biomass-based combined heat and power plant serves more than 400 businesses, or 80 percent of St. Paul's central business district, providing steam for heat and chilled water for air-conditioning.

EERC Director Gerald Groenewold opened the conference, emphasizing a common theme throughout the entire event: the United States needs renewable energy such as biomass-based fuels and electricity, but it has to be done right. Sustainable feedstocks and efficient and economic conversion technologies must be developed. Biomass feedstocks must be developed in such a way as not to compete with food on arable lands and to be resilient in adverse climates and soils. Agriculture and forest residues are the first choices, with algae and newer short-season, dry-climate energy crops showing great promise for the future.

The Biomass '08 Technical Workshop in Grand Forks provided a much more technical focus, with more than 40 experts from around the world presenting on policies and incentives for renewable energy, a large session on biomass feedstocks, the latest technologies for ethanol and biodiesel production, and biomass for heat and electricity. A popular addition was the pre-workshop tutorial on gasification. The tutorial was geared to those interested in the fundamentals of gasification for producing electricity, ethanol, green diesel and other products. One of the highlights of the workshop was the international panel of experts in biomass feedstocks for energy and fuels. From the dry, shorter-season prairie grass of North Dakota and camelina of Montana, to the arid, marginal-soil jatropha (which produces poisonous seeds rich in oil ideal for biofuel production) of central Africa, various feedstocks were tackled by several key presenters.

Both of these successful events are evidence of the great potential for sustainable biomass technologies that have roots in the "Green Acres" of the northern Great Plains and ethanol-producing regions of the United States.

Chris Zygarlicke is a deputy associate director for research at the EERC in Grand Forks, N.D. Reach him at or (701) 777-5123.