Why are they Hatin’ On Switchgrass?

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A couple of folks at the University of Minnesota apparently feel the world is just a little too optimistic these days, so they’ve taken it upon themselves to talk smack about the use of perennial, native grasses for producing fuel in an opinion piece that was published in the Star Tribune today.

Do they try to smash the cleaner-fuel’s dreams because it’d be bad for Minnesota? No.  Do they talk it down because we don’t know how to grow it?  No.  Do they do their part to undermine a burgeoning industry in Minnesota because the technology will always remain out of reach?  No.  As far as I can tell, their main argument is that because we don’t use perennial plants such as switchgrass now, we won’t anytime soon. 

I actually can’t for the life of me figure out what prompted them to write the piece.  The two applied economics professors do not offer any solutions to the concerns they raise.  Quite frankly, they seem to just want to say, “hey, you know that really good idea out there that holds great possibilities to make society more sustainable, add vigor to a sleepy rural economy, and prove once again how innovative Minnesota can be?  Well, ignore it.”

They do this with four categories

  • Economics – Their argument is that perennials cannot be at the same scale as corn-based ethanol anytime soon and that it’d be expensive to switch over corn ethanol refineries to switchgrass and friends.  This is all true.  Corn-based ethanol is an industry that has been in the works for at least two decades with government assistance and it is actually based off of probably five decades or more of research on manipulating corn for a multitude of purposes such as corn syrup, producing plastics, and creating dozens of other items no one would recognize as corn.  The people I talk to who are not afraid of a little creativity in the energy world don’t seem to want to convert current refineries over from corn to grasses, they talk about bringing online the next generation of refineries.  Those refineries work differently and it would indeed be expensive, likely, to convert old refineries.  We will be building more refineries regardless of the feedstock.  Of course, there is also the opportunity to use perennial grasses to provide the vast amounts of heat that the corn-refineries need, which would be a world better than the coal many are considering now and of course would start to create the markets that farmers need before they start planting crops in mass, but let’s continue to leave logic aside for now.
  • Political – They rightly point out that there are huge corporations with abundant political clout that profit from the system as is and won’t fancy many changes.  Oddly, they don’t seem to dwell on the fact that the fruit of these corporations’ efforts are what set up the economic disparities they highlight in point one of their argument, but I digress.  I believe there is growing political pressure against subsidies on corn and corn based ethanol.  In the last year, I’ve seen growing talk about eliminating Minnesota’s ethanol subsidies and livestock producers are coming out against continuing farm subsidies as is.  I don’t think these subsidies will change very soon, because of the clout the U profs highlight and their three decade long track record, but the drafters of this year’s Farm Bill (with Minnesota’s Congressman Collin Peterson at the lead) will have a hard time explaining why we should keep heavily subsidizing a crop and a fuel that are proven to be so economically competitive. 
  • Technology – I agree with them on this one.  We should be doing more to make cellulosic ethanol production more cost effective and sharing that knowledge.  It is too bad they didn’t use any of their space to highlight any current U of M research that aims to do just that.
  • Logistical – Using grasses offers the challenge of the fact that they are more bulky and lower density than corn.  They say that this harms swithgrass and friends from getting accepted into our current ethanol production system – and they are probably right.  But this is also where they show the least amount of vision or innovation.  They seem to hold up the current system as perfect, which I don’t believe is true.  I agree with those innovative folks in the countryside who look at all of this as an opportunity.  Not every ethanol plant needs to be able to produce 200 million gallons of ethanol.  Using native, perennial grasses offers us an opportunity to build a more dispersed system of smaller refiners that could be more locally owned and have better working relationships with the farmers producing their feedstock.  Admittedly, a concept that could be easily forgotten in this day and age, but only if we let it be. 

The two applied economic profs mock the fact that farmers aren’t growing these grasses and here lies a chicken and egg problem of which should come first.  Why would a farmer grow a crop that has no where to go?  Why create a system that relies on a fuel that is unavailable?  The groups working in Clean Energy Minnesota have some good ideas on how we can overcome this problem and some of the others that have been raised.  The Senate has responded to their calls and included approximately $5 million for multiple purposes and some policy language in their Agriculture Finance Bill.  Sadly, the House Ag Finance Bill currently fails to answer in kind and offers nothing more than continuing study of the issue.  Perhaps the professors can work with the people who are actually interested in offering us a path forward to make sure that we create this new and promising industry correctly from the get go.   

6 Responses to “Why are they Hatin’ On Switchgrass?”

  1. Gus Axelson

    Jon, will you please write a response like this for the Strib to publish? I had the same thoughts yesterday when I read the bashing on switchgrass. I’ll bet the Internet seemed like a preposterous idea 30 years ago…after all, there was not infrastructure in place for milions of homes with personal computers to access the World Wide Web.

    – Gus

  2. Jon

    That’s a very good point Gus and an intesting comparison. Like computers, the ethanol plants being built as we write are much different than the ones built just a few years ago. Both continue to evolve. Corn-based ethanol can be the 28k dial-up and switchgrass the highspeed wireless.

  3. Unny Nambudiripad

    A couple of thoughts:

    1. We should focus on proven methods of reducing emissions, including green house gases, from the transportation sector. This is best accomplished by efficiency (e.g. smaller vehicles) and conservation (e.g. biking and walking). We have too many solutions right now that we’re not using, such as funding non-motorized transportation infrastructure and transit.
    2. We shouldn’t put too much into unproven technologies. It seems that research and pilot projects is the best short-term focus for cellulosic ethanol. Corn-based or cellulosic ethanol, other bio-fuels, hydrogen fuel cells, and other sources of renewable transportation fuels may be good solutions, but it’s not clear which one(s) will emerge to be the best.

  4. Jon

    Very good points as well, Unny. Efficiency and conservation are not only needed in the electrical sector, but with fuels. The Clean Energy Minnesota electricity efficiency fact sheet (pdf) has an impressive chart that demonstrates how efficiency and renewable sources have to work together to reduce our fossil fuel consumption in that sector – and I’d wager that holds true with fuel as well. Not to mention that the cleanest energy is the energy never produced.

    As for picking winners and losers with limited research or incentive funds, that is indeed a sticky wicket. Since the full costs of fossil fuels are not accounted for these days, the “market” just can’t function properly in picking what would be best when all factors are accounted for. At the same time, I think our current systems for choosing which technologies to fund is not as scientific as it needs to be (i.e. it’s rather political). Add in the fact that we need to get aggressive in changing our energy systems and the ability to let it all work out on its own is undermined. All the more reason that we shouldn’t be wasting the resources that we have.

  5. Jon

    The same duo has a much longer piece in Foreign Affairs, where they lay related arguments out (and in a better fashion, in my opinion) and seem to take a much more optimitic look (albeit a far off vision for them) of cellulosic derived fuel. Here’s an excerpt:

    “Rather than promoting more mandates, tax breaks, and subsidies for biofuels, the U.S. government should make a major commitment to substantially increasing energy efficiency in vehicles, homes, and factories; promoting alternative sources of energy, such as solar and wind power; and investing in research to improve agricultural productivity and raise the efficiency of fuels derived from cellulose.”