Small-scale distributed energy to benefit Wisconsin

By Lisa Gibson
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.

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, and Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle has ordered four university campuses in the state to "come off the grid" and switch to biomass.

If more energy is produced and used locally, it can complement other renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, Radloff said. The two researchers compare local energy production with something most Wisconsinites can relate to, a local farmer's market, where 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, according to Turnquist and Radloff, 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, or NIMBY, opposition that wind farms and new ethanol plants have met. If the payoff and decision-making processes 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. For example, they cite Xcel Energy's 2008 proposal to add a biomass-to-energy burner to its existing plant in Ashland, Wis., which already uses woody biomass.

The amount of biomass that can be produced and harvested in Wisconsin is an open question, the paper states, along with how much the communities will actually 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.