May 5, 1997
Where do you look for smart solutions to big problems? National governments? Global corporations? Not necessarily.
One of the more innovative efforts to transform energy problems into solutions is developing handsomely in the north central US heartland, in the state of Minnesota. Actually, one of the things most innovative about it is that it is an energy program, farm program, economic development program and environmental program rolled into one.
The fundamental idea behind Minnesota’s biofuels program is what David Morris of Institute for Local Self-Reliance calls “the carbohydrate economy”–deriving liquid fuels, lubricants, plastics, industrial feedstocks, etc. from carbohydrates (from crops, crop residues and forests), rather than from hydrocarbons from drilled and mined fossil fuels. In concept it’s part of the necessary shift from reliance on stored energy capital to income energy, from geologic carbon reserves to a real time carbon cycle.
Biofuels have been discussed for years, of course, and biofuels projects abound. What’s distinctive in Minnesota is the approach, which emphasizes local, small scale production in order to best support a healthy local economy.
“Plant matter, unlike petroleum, is bulky and expensive to transport,” Morris notes, “and thus biochemical refineries will be smaller and closer to their raw material source than petrochemical refineries. This encourages local and regional processing.”
So to further encourage local production and processing, Minnesota is subsidizing the early years of its carbohydrate economy–with a producer subsidy that is capped in order to favor only to small producers. As a result, most of the state’s biofuels production comes from those smaller producers, most of which are cooperatively owned. In a state with a long tradition of cooperative ownership, some 25% of the state’s farmers are owners of the state’s biofuels industry.
How well is program doing? According to Morris, Minnesota now “grows” about 8% of its transport fuel–and could grow 85% or more in 15-20 years, if the program continues apace. How important is the program? And every dollar spent on biofuels–which Morris prefers to call by its traditional name, white lightening–is a dollar that cycles in the Minnesota economy, rather than being exported to distant energy companies and oil fields.
There are national implications too. Consider that US dependence on petroleum imports is growing, not declining, and represents more than half our trade deficit; replacing those energy imports with indigenous, renewable energy cuts the trade deficit and has a corresponding economic multiplier effect in the national economy.
The biofuels strategy is not without its downsides, of course. One key question pivots around the carbon cycle. Biofuels production from crop residues diverts carbon that would ultimately feed the soil into fuels and then the atmosphere. The atmosphere is not the worry in this case; the carbon added is balanced by the carbon extracted each year as the crops grow, a far healthier cycle than burning fuel that represents hundreds of millions of years of what Buckminster Fuller called “coiled sunlight.” But a significant diversion of carbon from the soil to gas tanks–or an intensive biofuels program relying on high input agriculture–could boost soil erosion, reduce soil fertility, and build demand for fertilizer and biocides that reduce net energy yields. [The Other Carbon Crisis, Trading Soil for Oil, January 10, 1995]
Fortunately , there are many options available, ranging from low-input or organic farming to alternative feedstocks. Corn itself is a rich biofuels feedstock, with high protein residue suitable for livestock feed; crop residues can be returned to the soil. And, according to Oak Ridge National Laboratory scientists Mark Downing, Sandy McLaughlin, and Marie Walsh (in Energy, Economic, and Environmental Implications of Production of Grasses as Biomass Feedstocks) high perennial grasses such as switchgrass “combine lower levels of nutrient demand, diverse geographical growing range, high net energy yields and high soil and water conservation potential indicate that these grasses could and should supplement annual row crops such as corn in developing alternative fuels markets.”
One powerful side effect of the Minnesota energy program is its reminder that we don’t really have a energy problem, as Swedish physicist John Holmberg is fond of pointing out. Since human society’s energy use is only about one-thirteen thousandth of our daily solar income, the solution to that “problem” is clearly to harvest that abundance. And photosynthesis is reliably on the job.