Quantalux Blog

News, events, observations, industrial and otherwise, from a Quantalux point-of-view.

Biomass Energy and Carbon

In a December 28, 2010 op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, Rep. Fred Upton from my state of Michigan argued that Congress should either delay or overturn the EPA’s proposed greenhouse gas regulations outright. This, he says, will avoid “regulatory mayhem” for small businesses, states and even the EPA, and free us all from excessive regulation. As a further argument against any carbon limits, Rep. Upton also states in the WSJ that “cuts in carbon emissions would mean significantly higher electricity prices.”

Rep. Upton’s opposition to EPA limits on carbon production is, I guess, consistent with his free-market principles. What Rep. Upton misses is that carbon limits are very free-market, basically accounting for the true cost of carbon production. Further, modest limits on carbon would have a highly beneficial effect on the development of renewable energy technology (and jobs) in his home state of Michigan – especially biomass-based energy.

Michigan has a tremendous natural potential to generate its electrical needs from biomass. While biomass is usually focused on corn or switchgrass for ethanol, energy can also be created from organic materials typically considered waste material. Manure from feedlots or farm and waste from food processing plants are all energy-rich feedstocks that are usually landfilled, and often contribute to environmental problems. The Michigan Biomass Inventory created by Michigan State University shows that biomass sources are widely distributed across Michigan, ranging from residual biomass materials (animal manure, food processing waste, food waste, etc) to biomass crops (corn stover, sugar beet pulp, etc.) These sources are all capable of creating energy-rich biogas via technologies such as anaerobic digestion, gasification, fermentation and transesterfication. Biogas from waste-material can be used to generate electricity 24/7, contributing to the baseload generation for our local utilities.

A major barrier for moving biogas systems forward, however, is the difficulty with assigning a comparative cost to more mature energy sources such as coal and natural gas. Biogas systems do offer enhanced environmental benefits in terms diminished accumulation of metals and salts in soils, but these costs are difficult to tally. Furthermore, water quality around the site is substantially improved, but this too is difficult to quantify. A key advantage of biogas systems – decreased carbon emissions – is only valuable if policy makers chose to give it value. As any economist will tell you, an item only has value if it has some constraint placed on it.

So back to Rep. Upton and his unease with any limits placed on carbon emissions. He states in the WSJ that EPA limits on carbon will “kill millions of jobs”.  Hmm, that is odd, because as an energy entrepreneur, I’m eager for my company to develop technology that can compete with fossil-fuels (and create jobs). Rep. Upton certainly knows that his home state of Michigan is filled with engineers, entrepreneurs and manufacturing sites that would like nothing better than to design/build the next-generation of energy systems.

I actually agree with Upton that the free market should dictate our energy choices — but a free-market only works when everyone starts to include the true cost of production. As long as fossil-fuels continue to get a  free pass on the cost of the carbon they produce, those costs will never be tallied, and we will never realize the potential for alternative fuels.



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