Workshop Focuses On Sustainable Energy

Richard Bogren  |  9/23/2006 2:32:55 AM

News Release Distributed 09/22/06

ALEXANDRIA, La. – The move toward sustainable energy is the future for Louisiana, Dr. Charles Reith told an audience of about 150 people who attended an alternative energy workshop in Alexandria Sept. 14-15.

"It takes time to bring technology into service," said Reith, executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Energy and a professor of environmental management at Tulane University in New Orleans. "Now is a great moment to bring all of our resources together."

Reith said renewable energy is important for national security and has the potential to create a sustainable economic opportunity for Louisiana to move beyond oil and gas. He also cited the added benefits of environmental protection, combating global warming and national and international competitiveness.

"We have potentially the fastest horse in the race," Reith said. "Louisiana can be a powerful competitor on the national and international scene."

Don Gohmert, state conservationist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, said Louisiana needs to do processing that will turn agricultural and forestry products into fuels and thus add value to the Louisiana economy.

"The demand for energy is infinite," Gohmert said. "We need to become more self-reliant."

The workshop, presented by various USDA units in Louisiana along with the LSU AgCenter, Southern University College of Agriculture, Family and Consumer Sciences, Louisiana Farm Bureau and the Louisiana Forestry Association, brought participants together to build partnerships and develop strategies to advance the development of renewable energy industries in Louisiana, according to workshop organizers.

Dr. Bill Richardson, chancellor of the LSU AgCenter, said 95 percent of the ethanol produced in the United States is made from corn, while 60 percent of the worldwide ethanol production comes from sugarcane. U.S. production in 2005 was about 3.9 billion gallons.

Nationally, 65 bio-diesel plants in the United States have an annual operating capacity of approximately 395 million gallons.

Ethanol, a gasoline additive, is made by fermenting starches and sugars from plants. Bio-diesel is made from vegetable oils – with most of it currently coming from soybeans.

Researchers, both those who work with plants and engineers who are developing the processes and vehicles that make and use biofuels, are trying to improve both the methods for manufacturing these products and the plants that serve as feedstocks for them.

"We need to make sure the economic analysis of these models is very sound," Richardson said. "A tremendous amount of research and demonstration work has to be done.

"Not everyone is convinced this is something we have to do," he added. "We have to persuade people that what we can do in agriculture is a good thing. We have to let the public know it’s an alternative."

Willie Cooper, state executive director of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, said Louisiana has the capacity to increase production of plants used to produce bio-fuels. He said the state has land available, because farmers are operating on 1 million fewer acres than 10 years ago.

"My fuel bills got my attention," said Sterling Bain Jr., who operates Bain Farms in Avoyelles and Rapides parishes with his brothers. "We have to try to do something to increase our energy efficiency."

Bain Farms encompasses 5,000 acres of cropland, mostly in sugarcane and rice, and 1,000 acres in timber.

Bain said he was at the workshop "to see where this renewable energy industry could have in our operation.

"Almost any industry is likely to be more economically feasible than farming," he added with a smile.

Louisiana farmers and LSU AgCenter researchers have vast experience with a large diversity of crops that can be used to produce bioenergy and the capability to quickly expand to other crops if needed, said Dr. Don Boquet, a researcher at the LSU AgCenter’s Macon Ridge Research Station at Winnsboro.

"Because our climate is subtropical, we can produce bioenergy crops year-round," Boquet said. "Summer crops such as corn, soybeans, sunflowers and sweet potatoes and winter crops such as wheat and canola enable year-round production.

"From the standpoint of total biomass production per unit of land, our climate and soils will produce higher yields per acre than any other region of the country," he added.

Experts say as ethanol and bio-diesel production facilities come on line, Louisiana farmers will have opportunities to plant crops other than those they’re growing now.

"Current production goals are often different than those of bioenergy feedstocks," said Dr. Gary Breitenbeck, an agronomist in the LSU AgCenter’s Department of Agronomy and Environmental Management. "As a result, the cost of many bioenergy feedstocks can be expected to decline as markets develop."

Breitenbeck also cited Louisiana’s long growing season, ample rainfall and fertile soils as advantages for producing crops for energy conversion.

"Because low transportation costs are central to the profitability of bioenergy production, Louisiana’s well-established rail, barge and highway transport systems offer additional competitive advantages," he said.

The forest products industry, the largest agricultural sector in Louisiana, has for decades been using wastes from sawmills, pulp mills and similar operations for energy and other products, according to Dr. Niels De Hoop, a researcher in the Louisiana Forest Products Development Center in the LSU AgCenter’s School of Renewable Natural Resources.

Because much of what might be considered waste material already is being used to generate steam and electrical power in the mills, any significant new sources of wood-based energy must come directly from the forest, De Hoop said.

"This will require new standards of efficiency, since logging and transportation costs can represent the majority of expenses in wood-based energy," he said.

The Louisiana forestry industry leaves 15 million to 30 million tons of plant material behind following harvest each year, said C.A. "Buck" Vandersteen, executive director of the Louisiana Forestry Association.

"We need to establish a baseline – a minimum level of renewable energy – even if costs change," he said.

Vandersteen pointed out that during the past 30 years, the forestry industry went from 40 percent to 100 percent energy self-sufficiency – even though the industry, which includes forestry, pulp and paper production, is among the top three energy consumers in the country.

"Energy is the most-important factor in sustaining the forest products industry," he said.

One of the drawbacks to producing liquid fuels from wood and the non-seed parts of plants – called "biomass" – is the chemistry involved in breaking down the cellulosic material to convert it into ethanol.

The technology is available, but it isn’t yet economical, said Dr. Mark Zappi, dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

"We need to think beyond bulk chemicals – fuels – and look at specialty chemicals," Zappi said, suggesting the market value of non-fuel byproducts could offset the higher cost of processing cellulosic materials.

He said processing plants are complex refineries that can produce a variety of products from plant materials. They can be viewed as chemical crops versus food crops, producing products that can be used in plastics, glues and pharmaceuticals.

"We must do research and development regionally to take advantage of local crops – more than just corn and soybeans," Zappi said.

Experts frequently cite high-value byproducts as being important adjuncts to the manufacture of biofuels that can create additional economic opportunities for rural Louisiana.

"If we are to survive in future generations on fossil fuels, we’re in trouble," said Gerald Willis, assistant chief of NRCS in Washington, D.C.

Willis works nationwide with farmers who are developing anaerobic digesters for poultry litter along with other processes that convert agricultural and forest products to energy.

"Louisiana has the greatest opportunity to be independent of fossil fuels," he said.

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Writer: Rick Bogren at (225) 578-5839 or rbogren@agcenter.lsu.edu

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