Doing More with Less: Biofuels and Rural Economic Development

Posted on 05 February 2013

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By Mary Solecki

As a small town Midwesterner, I know that farming opportunities are crucial for healthy communities in a large part of the country. My grandmother would remind me, as yours probably did too, "Waste not, want not." Our population is rising, so we have to find a way to do more with less: feed more people, make finite resources stretch.

And I think that is what's at the heart of the biofuels movement: doing more with less. How can we deliver our energy needs from domestic sources and still deliver the food we all need? Well, as my grandmother pinpointed so many years ago, the answer lies in the waste.

The key to delivering responsible feedstocks for biofuels lies in the land use. Feedstocks typically comprise a substantial portion of the total carbon footprint of a biofuel, so this is an important consideration.

And luckily, we are not asking farmers to stop farming, or to change beautiful forests into new agriculture. We're asking them to do something that comes quite naturally: use your land for more. If there is waste from your crop, it now has value. New crop rotation can make your soil more fertile, and provide revenue opportunities during times of the year when the land may have previously laid fallow. Akin to farmers placing wind turbines on their land and receiving an income boost from energy production, we're turning to farmers across the country and asking to partner with them on making greater use of their land.

DuPont has a fantastic example. Their new facility in Iowa includes cooperative agreements with about 100 nearby farmers for their corn stover (leaves and stalks).

One of E2's members, representing the Mendota Energy Beet Cooperative, is working on soil conservation and additional revenue opportunities by farming high value biomass for use in advanced biofuel projects in rural California.

In Nevada, Fulcrum Bioenergy is preparing to build their facility that will take pos-recycled waste and turn it into biofuel. Fulcrum expects to hire about 50 people to run this facility - permanent jobs that pay competitive wages. Although these waste to energy projects are not farming specific, they still provide opportunities to communities across the country - rural or urban.

The USDA recognizes the potential of biomass for biofuels. That's why they are supporting the loan guarantee program and the Biomass Crop Assistance Program. In January the USDA secretary, Tom Vilsack, issued a 2012 report on investments in job creation, business, infrastructure and housing for rural communities.

Are you curious about what biomass opportunities might be under your nose in your area? I like this map from National Renewable Energy Lab. It lets you click through the different feedstock types and see what might be nearby. For some desert locations, don't be fooled by a lack of biomass. Those are the prime locations for algal fuel production.

Producing energy in the future is a distributed opportunity. It makes the most sense from a fuel economy standpoint to use the fuel nearby where it is produced- not ship it halfway around the world. And if all communities, cities and states can produce the fuel we use, then we're not just creating jobs - we're keeping our money local too. We've got a long way to go before we can get there, but we have to start with the vision first.

Picture your local farmers receiving extra money from selling their waste materials or perennial grasses to a local biofuel production facility. Then picture running your local economy on that fuel, purchased from stations nearby. Sure, many people might have electric cars, bicycles, or other modes of transit - those are great too - but now we can run large trucks and planes on this local fuel. And if that wasn't enough for you, this fuel doesn't pollute your air or water. It's an idyllic vision, but it's a vision so rife with common sense and opportunity that I think it works.

In my grandmother's lifetime she watched the horse and buggy be replaced by cars. The significance of this shift was not lost on her. I hope that in my lifetime I'll watch another significant shift in our transportation, and it will be in a way that provides jobs and rewards efficiency and innovation.

Mary Solecki directs the Clean Fuels Program for Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), a non-profit advocacy organization whose business members support policy with both economic and environmental benefits. Mary is engaged in research, advocacy, and applied policy studies for advanced biofuels, especially the Low Carbon Fuel Standard. She works with leading fuel producers to build a coalition of business support for practical environmental legislation.