A big question in the renewable energy field is whether producing ethanol from corn for use in car engines is more environmentally benign than using fossil fuel.
Looking for energy answers
a recent University symposium explored the latest science
by Deane Morrison
Published on November 23, 2004
Next spring a windmill will rise from the plains of Morris to generate 1.65 megawatts of power, equivalent to about half of the electricity needs for that town's University campus. In a laboratory on the U of M's campus in St. Paul, bacteria and tiny algae are making hydrogen. At the University's Cloquet Forestry Research Center, modular residential roof panels that combine energy efficiency with improved moisture control are undergoing tests.
These are just a few of the projects of the University's Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment (IREE). Created by the 2003 Minnesota Legislature with funds from Xcel Energy, IREE is part of the President's Initiative on the Environment and Renewable Energy.
IREE is out to make the University a leader in renewable energy technologies and help turn Minnesota into a net exporter of energy. On Thursday (November 18), IREE held a symposium to report on progress to date, including release of its first annual report, and to discuss future directions.
Energy prices often reflect only direct costs like production, transport, and storage while ignoring external costs like adverse health effects of emissions, climate change, and ecological changes from altered land use.
"Minnesota now spends billions of dollars a year to import energy," said Robert Elde, IREE Executive Committee chair and dean of the College of Biological Sciences. "The state has ample renewable resources, such as wind and agricultural biomass, plus the scientific and business expertise to develop them."
IREE has its work cut out for it. According to data presented by IREE director Dick Hemmingsen, the United States uses 26 percent of the world's oil--more than the next five highest consuming nations combined. As the flagship research vessel for the state, the University must lead the way in pushing the country toward sustainable energy. Yet "until a couple of years ago, we saw no 'institutional profile' in renewable energy," Hemmingsen said, meaning the University wasn't doing much visible work in the field.
A profile is now emerging, thanks in large part to research funded by IREE. Here's a rundown of some of the projects presented on Thursday.
- Hydrogen from bacteria and algae. Michael Flickinger, professor in the University's Biotechnology Institute, and his team have created "microbial paints"--latex-like coatings not intended for use as surface coverings, but as a way to contain bacteria that produce hydrogen gas. Hydrogen gas can then be used as an energy source.
- Getting more protein and/or oil from seed crops. Soybeans contain lots of oil and protein, and the biofuel known as soy diesel is already compatible with car engines. But soy diesel is currently too expensive for regular use. The higher the oil content of seeds, the closer soy diesel comes to being economically feasible as a fuel. It may be possible, says plant biology associate professor Sue Gibson, to alter certain genes and use them to "trick" soybean plants into putting less sugar and more oil or protein into seeds.
- Wind energy. The Morris wind turbine is the first step toward a community-scale system that will integrate renewable energy into rural economies. It was conceived in 2000, when rural areas were hard hit by low farm incomes, said Greg Cuomo, head of the University's West Central Research and Outreach Center. The turbine, whose 1.65 megawatts could supply the equivalent of half of UMM's electricity needs, will be used in research on wind energy storage and the use of wind energy to produce hydrogen. Other elements in the works at the center include a biomass gasification system, perhaps using animal waste as a source of methane, and research to harness wind energy to produce biofuels, like ethanol.
- Energy-efficient buildings, renewable materials. Buildings consume a hefty 65 percent of electricity and more than 36 percent of the total U.S. primary energy use, so they offer plenty of room for reducing consumption, said John Carmody, director of the Center for Sustainable Building Research. Carmody and mechanical engineering professor Sue Mantell described the modular roof of the future: self-supporting, lightweight (metal replaced by composite materials), moisture-proof, a good insulator, and equipped with solar cells to heat water--in sunny areas, at least. Experiments underway at the U include studies of model roofs and rooftop solar cells.
- Full-cost accounting of alternative energy sources. Steve Polasky, professor of applied economics, pointed out how energy prices often reflect only direct costs like production, transport, and storage while ignoring external costs like adverse health effects of emissions, climate change, and ecological changes from altered land use. If external costs were included in price, consumers and policy-makers would tend to choose the energy technology with the lowest total cost. The problem is that it's hard to determine all the external costs. Smokestack emissions may be easy to quantify, but nitrogen runoff from farms and the ultimate fate of many pollutants are not. A current case is the question of whether producing ethanol from corn for use in car engines is more environmentally benign. For a look at the complexity of the question, see the paper by Douglas Tiffany and Vernon.
In the afternoon session, keynoter James Fischer from the U.S. Department of Energy gave an overview of federal collaborations with states and universities to foster renewable energy technologies. "We could save 10 percent of what we import from Saudi Arabia by increasing the fuel economy to 40 mpg by 2012 and 55 mpg by 2020," he said, advocating work with universities to make it happen. Along those lines, Alfred Marcus, a professor in the Carlson School of Management, said in an interview that the best way to help hybrid electric vehicles gain mass acceptance might be to produce lots of hybrid SUVs, since the buyers of those cars tend to be less sensitive to the price increases associated with hybrid technology.
A video of the symposium will be posted at the IREE Web site in the next few weeks.