Traditional economies may suggest that bigger is better, but the Oklahoma State University Biofuels Team has received widespread recognition for cautioning that is not the case with all forms of renewable energy.
“Our vision of the future intersection of energy and agriculture involves a decentralized energy production system,” said Danielle Bellmer, OSU food processing engineer with the Robert M. Kerr Food and Ag Products Center and coordinator of the team’s development efforts with sweet sorghum ethanol.
The decentralized system would consist of dispersed energy generation plants, with potentially a different technology and feedstock combination in every region of the country, and even areas of some states such as Oklahoma, one of only four states in the nation to have more than 10 distinct ecological regions.
It is a message that has received notice at the highest levels. The OSU Biofuels Team was among the 13 programs nationwide honored as a Grand Challenge recipient by the U.S. government at the 2nd Annual Bio Energy Awareness Days event in Washington D.C., June 19-22.
Bellmer said decentralization allows for optimum technology selection, matching a region to the appropriate resources and generating local solutions for the fulfillment of energy needs without negatively affecting food and fiber production.
“Diversification of feedstocks leads to improved logistics and reduced risks associated with fueling huge energy production systems, particularly important for the low-density biomass that potentially may be used in agriculture-based energy production,” she said.
In addition, many byproducts associated with renewable energy production will be available for beneficial, cost-effective local uses in a decentralized system. For example, appropriate crop residues not used in the energy process potentially could be used in feeding livestock.
Transportation costs are reduced threefold: in the feedstock supply chain, distribution of the final product and in the dispersal of byproducts or waste products.
One important feature is that a decentralized system helps to disperse monetary gains, particularly into local economies, said Ray Huhnke, biosystems and agricultural engineer who coordinates OSU’s multi-college, multi-institutional biofuels effort.
“If agriculture is to play a significant role in the future of renewable energy, there must be a considerable benefit to America’s agribusiness operators and rural communities,” he said.
As new industries are introduced into communities, the demand on local utilities can be significant. For example, large water supplies may be required for processing, as well as increased wastewater treatment capacity.
“A decentralized system provides a better means to distribute the burden and reduce the effect on local municipalities,” Huhnke said.
Then there are the national security concerns. Dependence on a small number of energy sources makes the United States vulnerable to potential attacks on the nation’s energy supply. Diversification reduces that risk.
“The renewable energy landscape will be a mosaic of diverse elements, meeting specific needs at the local, state, regional and national levels. Our state and federally mandated land-grant mission makes the university well suited to help shape America’s energy future,” said Robert E. Whitson, vice president, dean and director of the OSU Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources.
Division research into biomass fuel-source improvement in the early 1990s kicked off OSU’s longstanding involvement in biofuels development, years before President Bush brought biofuels into the national consciousness with his January 2006 State of the Union address.
“For most people, the conversation about biofuels is a rather recent topic,” Whitson said. “OSU has been working for years to develop the necessary tools and relevant expertise to help community leaders and residents make sound decisions about renewable energy development while balancing economic, social and environmental considerations.”
The OSU Biofuels Team is comprised of scientists and engineers within the division; the OSU College of Engineering, Architecture and Technology; the University of Oklahoma; Mississippi State University and Brigham Young University.
“Our being honored as a Grand Challenge winner at this summer’s national Bio Energy Awareness Days event in Washington D.C. is another example of the university’s recognized leadership in biobased product development and technology transfer,” Whitson said.