Study outlines plan for renewable energy production from Minnesota resources
The University has released studies commissioned by the Minnesota Legislature that document state biomass resources in two target areas and outline plans to convert those resources for renewable energy production. The study looks at the capacity to sustain and harvest grasslands, brushlands, agricultural residues and forests in an area of western Minnesota around the White Earth reservation and in an area of east central Minnesota anchored by Chisago, Isanti and Pine counties. It considers both economic and environmental impacts in plotting a course that will utilize renewable Minnesota resources to produce biofuels.
"The ultimate target," says the report's principal investigator Ken Valentas, "is a renewable energy facility to convert the region's cellulosic biomass into environmentally-sustainable carbon-neutral liquid transportation fuels."
Cellulosic biomass is plant matter composed of cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin. It has great potential for conversion to biofuels because of the abundance and diversity of raw materials and because its use can help reduce dangerous greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But significant processing is required to convert the cellulosic structures of prairie grasses, wood and agricultural plant wastes such as corn stover. The report notes that although current conversion processes are not yet commercially viable, they will become viable as they are improved through research.
Crop productivity data gathered for the report indicated that if all currently available cellulosic biomass was harvested sustainably and converted to biofuel, over 250 million gallons per year could be produced in the combined regions of the study. But this is a best case scenario dependent on the price of biomass, because biomass type and supply changes with variations in market price. The economic viability of producing biofuels from cellulosic biomass will ultimately be determined by the cost of gasoline from fossil fuels and by the United State's commitment to reducing carbon dioxide emissions and its dependence on foreign oil.
Intermediate steps are necessary in planning for the eventual harvesting of biomass resources to produce renewable energy. The report recommends investment in plants to produce fuel pellets from currently available, sustainably harvested biomass resources like timber, prairie grass and agricultural waste. The report says this will create both immediate economic opportunity and the infrastructure necessary to eventually manufacture liquid biofuels.
Copies of the reports for both studies can be accessed and downloaded by following the links on this page.