2008/03/24

Wisconsin Biofuels Destiny Conference

The Wisconsin Technology Council and several other organizations have organized the "Wisconsin Biofuels Destiny Conference", scheduled for 16 - 17 April 2008 in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, USA.

It will be interesting to hear what the outcomes of this conference are. The objectives of the conference are stated as "...exhibiting best practices and introducing potential partners in business, academia and government..." If the sponsoring organizations have done a thorough job of contacting the right people and have developed a persuasive marketing message, the conference should be able to easily achieve those two objectives.

Maybe it's just marketing-speak or hyperbole, and maybe it's needed to get the attention of the target audience for this conference, but for me the "Destiny" label is going waaaay overboard. Based on my understanding of the biofuels and biorefinery industry, Wisconsin has a long way to go to become a state of 'destiny' in the biofuels arena. A quick survey of current media quickly reveals that at least half the states in the US plan to become the 'leading' center of biofuels. To say nothing of other countries and regions around the world who are highly interested in taking advantage of the current focus on energy independence and biofuels in particular. To-date I have not heard about a coordinated program of research, state/federal/private funding, and biofuels startups in Wisconsin to justify the 'destiny' label. It would be good to find out that I'm mis-informed on the topic.

Biofuels as a whole are coming under closer scrutiny these days in the media. A year ago there were hundreds of new corn ethanol facilities or expansion of current facilities on the drawing board. Over the past four to six months, corn ethanol has come under heavy fire for its inefficiency in converting sunlight into liquid fuel for vehicles, its environmental impacts and its apparent effects on food prices. At the same time, many of the proposed corn ethanol projects began to be canceled or put on hold.

As corn ethanol's image became more tarnished, the focus switched increasingly to cellulosic ethanol. Based on what we know about cellulosic ethanol at this point, it should have better solar conversion efficiency than corn (starch/sugar) ethanol and less negative environmental impacts. However, a popular saying in renewable fuels circles is that cellulosic ethanol has been five years from commercial viability for the past 30 years, and it always will be. When I first heard that at a conference a year ago, I asked the speaker how long he estimated until a viable cellulosic ethanol process would reach the market. He smiled and said, "Five years."

There are billions of federal and private dollars being thrown at various cellulosic ethanol processes right now, and as the price of oil increases (latest price I saw was $112/bbl) the investments will only increase. It's hard to predict whether these investments will result in the development of a cost-effective cellulosic ethanol process within the next few years, but there certainly are a lot of smart people working on the problem.

The global regions which will grow high volumes of sustainable biofuels raw materials are likely to be those areas with long growing seasons and a high percentage of sunny days. Wisconsin might not fit that criteria perfectly. Additionally, because of the low density of 'energy' in most biomass, it is estimated that 60% to 80% of the cost of biofuels is biomass collection and handling. These two factors in the biofuels industry don't mean Wisconsin should not pursue research into biofuels or other bioproducts. But climate and available biomass do make it seem unlikely Wisconsin will be one of the top two or three states in the biofuels race.

Two other factors which will determine what states or regions are top leaders for biofuels are the the amount and type of research being done within a state or region and the amount of money being invested in the sector by the government and by private investors. Wisconsin's biggest plus for these two factors is UW Madison's lead role in the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center. There are lots of smaller biofuels research projects at universities in the state and there are a few biofuels private companies in Wisconsin, but not a lot of activity with top national recognition that I'm aware of. I haven't seen specific rankings of top biofuels research states or regions, but based on articles I've read, there's a lot of competition in this field, and the articles don't give the impression that Wisconsin is considered a leader in biofuels research.

The only way we will become a leader in biofuels research is with comprehensive knowledge of what other states and countries are doing, a good action plan to become a leader, and with a state government and private investors who put money into making Wisconsin a biofuels research leader. My guess is that right now, Wisconsin would not rank in the top ten states for biofuels investment.

If you are interested in the challenges facing biofuels, there are plenty of resources online to learn more about that topic. I don't believe those challenges mean Wisconsin should not pursue biofuels research or biorefinery facilities. We should identify special biorefinery areas where we have strong resources and advantages over other regions, such as the paper industry infrastructure, then invest effectively and quickly in those areas.

Sign up today for the "Wisconsin Biofuels Destiny Conference", and connect with others highly interested in this topic.


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