Small-scale Distributed Energy in Wisconsin Benefits Farmers, Local Communities
Small-scale distributed energy in Wisconsin benefits farmers, local communities
by Lisa Gibson
April 29, 2009
If Wisconsin would take advantage of “low hanging fruit” and cash in on the state’s biomass potential via small-scale distributed energy systems, advantages would reach both the agricultural sector and rural communities, according to a recently released Program on Agricultural Technologies (PATS) policy perspective. ‘How Could Small Scale Distributed Energy Benefit Wisconsin Agriculture and Rural Communities?’ was published in late April.
Authors Gary Radloff, director of policy and communications with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, and Alan Turnquist, outreach specialist at the Program on Agriculture Technology Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, say a distributed energy system in the state might curb logistical challenges that come along with large-scale, industrial production, such as biomass feedstock aggregation, short-term storage and transportation. “In policy discussion, we need to keep in mind policy incentives for smaller-scale operations,” Radloff said.
“For me, the thing that struck home was that all of these logistics behind biomass are so dependent on location,” Turnquist said of his research. The small-scale distributed energy option is obvious, he said, creating a marriage between the idea of hundreds of thousands of producers and smaller-scale uses.
Wisconsin has almost 15 million tons of potential biomass, the paper states, and if smaller local operations use that feedstock, it could increase energy production opportunities and increase returns for rural communities. It’s not just the scale of biomass potential that makes distributed energy a powerful tool in Wisconsin, but also its diversity, Turnquist said. “The single biggest benefit is that we have the capacity to do it right now,” he said.
Small-scale operations are starting to pop up around the state, according to Radloff, mostly at rural schools. Starting small and building out might be a way to build the biomass-to-energy infrastructure in the state, he added. Some larger projects also are in the works such as Governor Jim Doyle’s order for four university campuses in the state to “come off the grid” and switch to biomass, Radloff said. If more energy is produced locally and used locally, it can complement other renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, Radloff said. The two researchers compare local energy production to something most Wisconsinites can relate to, a local farmer’s market; the money locals spend goes to other locals they might know personally.
It is possible to construct a system in which a portion of the renewable energy dividend stays at home and the long-term benefits are shared by the landowner, farmer, forester or local community, Turnquist and Radloff write, as several biomass technology options can be economically efficient when located in rural settings, as indicated by studies and real world examples.
But what if local people don’t want the energy systems in their communities? According to Radloff and Turnquist, local systems would require local participation, including organization and decision making, that could eliminate the Not In My BackYard (NIMBY) opposition wind farms and new ethanol plants have met. If the payoff and decision-making process stay in the community, locals may rally more support toward community renewable energy products, they said. “It’s not just about natural resources and infrastructure,” Turnquist said. “It’s also about people and communities.”
Opportunities also exist for small-scale projects to partner with larger-scale operations, according to the authors. They cite as an example Xcel Energy’s 2008 proposal to add a biomass-to-energy burner to their existing plant in Ashland, which already uses woody biomass.
The amount of biomass that can be produced and harvested in Wisconsin still is an open question, the paper states, along with how much the communities actually will benefit from bioenergy and other renewables. But, it adds, local energy production is an important part of the state’s economic future and policies should be crafted to ensure the economic and energy returns go to rural Wisconsin residents and that groups undertaking distributed energy projects can manage the risk in the bioenergy market.
Renergie was formed by Ms. Meaghan M. Donovan on March 22, 2006 for the purpose of raising capital to develop, construct, own and operate a network of ten ethanol plants in the parishes of the State of Louisiana which were devastated by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Each ethanol plant will have a production capacity of five million gallons per year (5 MGY) of fuel-grade ethanol. Renergie’s “field-to-pump” strategy is to produce non-corn ethanol locally and directly market non-corn ethanol locally. On February 26, 2008, Renergie was one of 8 recipients, selected from 139 grant applicants, to share $12.5 million from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Renewable Energy Technologies Grants Program. Renergie received $1,500,483 (partial funding) in grant money to design and build Florida’s first ethanol plant capable of producing fuel-grade ethanol solely from sweet sorghum juice. On April 2, 2008, Enterprise Florida, Inc., the state’s economic development organization, selected Renergie as one of Florida’s most innovative technology companies in the alternative energy sector. On January 20, 2009, Florida Energy & Climate Commission amended RET Grant Agreement S0386 to increase Renergie’s funding from $1,500,483 to $2,500,000. By blending fuel-grade ethanol with gasoline at the gas station pump, Renergie will offer the consumer a fuel that is renewable, more economical, cleaner, and more efficient than unleaded gasoline. Moreover, the Renergie project will mark the first time that Louisiana farmers will share in the profits realized from the sale of value-added products made from their crops.