Biomass '09: Biomass has a place in the energy future

By Anna Austin
Posted July 14, 2009, at 6:22 p.m. CST

The Energy & Environmental Research Center welcomed more than 300 attendees from 25 states and three Canadian provinces at its Biomass '09: Power, Fuels, and Chemicals Workshop, a two-day event that kicked off Tuesday afternoon at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, N.D.

The EERC is a research, development, demonstration and commercialization facility on the University of North Dakota campus, which has nine primary areas of focus including renewable energy, waste utilization, management and site remediation and environmental control technologies.

In his opening address, EERC Director Gerald Groenewold described the leaps and bounds the EERC has taken in the past few years. Since its inception in 1987, the center has developed a contract portfolio of more than $227 million, with over 1,000 clients in all 50 U.S. states and 51 countries. "We've had 434 active contracts within the past year, 92 percent are non-federal," he said.

Groenewold said there is much confusion in the world right now regarding energy. "Some people think there are silver bullets that will solve all of the energy issues and that is not true," he said. "There is a major portfolio of energy technologies that are going to address the needs of this world. Biomass is part of that. I don't know how big it's going to be; a lot of that is dependent upon political decisions and regulatory decisions, cap and trade, carbon management. Frankly there's a lot of frustration out there right now because we don't have a good sense of where the road map is."

The EERC is conducting several research projects on renewables, according to Gronewold, including the production of biomass-based jet fuel under a $4.7 million contract with the U.S. Department of Defense's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. "We've got a major breakthrough here and are moving toward using algae," he said. He added however, that "I'm very, very concerned with genetically modifying something that we have thousands and thousands of strains of and don't know much about many of them; certainly not thousands of them. They produce half of the oxygen on this earth and we want to genetically modify them? I'm very worried about that."

U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., addressed Biomass '09 attendees via video. Since 2001, Senator Dorgan has provided nearly $9 million to the EERC for biomass utilization projects, and has included another $7 million in legislation this year, which would be the largest federal invest ever made in the program.

"In my experience as young boy in a small town in southwestern North Dakota, my father spotted an old Model T in a grainery that had been parked there for decades. �I bought it for $25 and restored it,'" he said. "'Back then, I put gasoline in a 1924 vehicle the same way as we still put it in a vehicle today. Nothing has changed at all.' But it must."

Dorgan said the U.S. faces many energy challenges. "We want to be able to expand our capabilities to produce home-grown energy right here from a range of feedstocks," he said. "We'll migrate from corn to other cellulosic feedstocks and we'll use biomass from landfills. These ideas have been ignored for decades, but not any longer. Myself and Congress believe that it's long past the time to get busy and create a different energy future."

North Dakota Commissioner of Agriculture Doug Goehring stressed the influence agriculture has on job creation, statewide and on a national level. Agriculture is responsible for directly and indirectly employing 25 percent of North Dakota's population, he said, adding that 90 percent of the state's total acreage is utilized for agricultural purposes. Nationally, agriculture accounts for 12 percent of the U.S. economy, or about 19 percent of the indirect and direct jobs, according to Goehring. "One of every five people [in the U.S.] is employed by agriculture," he said.

Goehring said farmers are interested, yet skeptical, when it comes to learning more about the next generation of energy production, primarily biomass. "What will those feedstocks be? Can I grow them on my farm? If it's a perennial crop, how can I incorporate that? If it's annual, how does it fit within my crop rotation? I don't have those answers," he said. "Research is being done, and much more has to be done."