Researching Sustainable Energy Topics
Southern SARE Position Paper:
Addressing the Development of a Sustainable Bioenergy/Energy Future
Politicians, farmers, and investors across the U.S. are enthusiastic about potential economic benefits and use of energy crops to revitalize the rural landscape. Rapidly expanding, highly visible and potentially polarizing investments and decisions are being made in an often chaotic manner that is not consistent with value-based and data-based information. Frequently, there has been little or no long-range planning or perspectives and no visible efforts to consider the externalities (i.e., natural resource and community impacts) that will occur as a result of these activities.
Current investments are ignoring the foundational principles of sustainability: profiting producers, benefiting the environment, and providing long-term assets to the community as a whole. Critical questions must be addressed.
• What are the effects of increased removal of crop residues, monoculture, continuous
cropping, and increased nutrient and pesticide inputs on environmental sustainability,
especially soil erosion, soil organic matter, and water quality?
• What are the effects on food and feed costs throughout the world?
• How will small local communities deal with increased transportation and other infrastructure requirements, and environmental damage done to community air or water?
• Will investments really create wealth for local communities or will they enhance the current extractive economy in which wealth derived from local natural resources is removed from rural America?
An important role for Southern Region SARE, consistent with the organization’s core values, is to ask: (1) How sustainable are current biofuels efforts? And (2), How can SARE contribute to the vision and development of a truly sustainable bioenergy future?
For example, how will the increased number of Southern farmland acres being planted in grain for the production of fuel impact hay supplies, conservation reserve acres, cost of livestock feed, etc.? Could SARE research answer some of those questions in a timely manner?
The Southern Region Sustainable Agricultural Research and Education (S-SARE) Administrative Council (AC) will support energy-use-efficiency (including all aspects of energy conservation), strive to help identify bioenergy ideas and technologies that are truly sustainable, and actively participate in balanced discussions regarding the sustainability of current bioenergy investments. We will direct efforts through the Professional Development Program (PDP), Research & Education (R&E) grants, and other education and outreach activities to be sure that all relevant data are examined, all aspects of sustainability are being debated, and that all issues of sustainability are included in the decision-making process.
We need to research new crops (alternative feedstocks) for biofuels, not just for higher yield to increase the potential amount of biofuels, but also to avoid introducing another invasive species, such as Chinese tallow. Consideration also needs to be given to water requirements of such feedstocks.
Partnerships with other SARE regions, agencies (e.g., Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy, Natural Resources and Conservation Service, and Agriculture Research Service), institutions (Land Grant and other colleges and universities), non-governmental organizations (NGOs), state and local economic development agencies, and state agriculture and natural resource departments must be investigated to ensure issues of sustainability (e.g., clean water, soil and air quality, and rural communities) are being fully considered. Time is of the essence so action should commence immediately, but in a coordinated and focused manner initially emphasizing investments in education.
S-SARE must ask questions that may be overlooked or even discounted in the rush to develop new technologies and management strategies to support renewable bioenergy production. For example, how can farmers and ranchers:
• Develop agricultural resources for energy production in a sustainable manner?
• Capitalize on bioenergy opportunities while protecting soil and water quality?
• Establish partnerships with local businesses to ensure that rural communities realize benefits from energy development projects?
One consideration that is fundamental is the location, size, and capability of processing facilities. Are these to be a few, large scale facilities where crops would need to be transported to? Or, should there be smaller and more plentiful facilities that can be local in nature and reduce transportation costs at the risk of local growing conditions? An economic analysis is needed for this basic issue. This question in turn leads to the nature and scope of production facilities. The production infrastructure needs to be
studied and detailed for efficiency.
In an effort to expand the focus in bioenergy beyond corn- and soybean-based ethanol and biodiesel, themes that can be considered in future SARE projects, include, but are not limited to:
1. Energy Conservation and Efficiency
a. Strategies that support and promote energy conservation by machinery and equipment.
b. Strategies for energy conservation in buildings through design, site selection, and materials selection.
c. Strategies for educational methods to increase overall commitment to sustainable agriculture by teaching energy conservation and efficiency in agricultural practices as well as exploring new ways to produce energy
2. Energy Efficient Production Practices
a. Conservation tillage –What factors are limiting the adoption of conservation/
reduced tillage methods that are known to save fuel and build soil carbon?
b. Diversified cropping systems – What types of incentives, educational programs, or demonstration projects are needed to increase adoption and use of nutrient management plans, site-specific management practices, and innovative application techniques that result in an overall reduction in off-farm energy used to sustain soil fertility?
c. Integrated livestock systems – What limits the adoption of pasture-based systems and innovative livestock housing that can reduce heating and electricity requirements.
3. Non-biomass Renewable Energy Sources
a. Solar energy and wind power –What improvements, incentives, or strategies are needed to encourage greater adoption of these energy sources?
4. Alternative Biomass Feed Stock Production Systems
a. What types of diverse, and sustainable cropping systems should be developed for bioenergy production that would meet the multiple needs of soil, water, and air quality while providing wildlife habitat and avoiding introduction of invasive plant species.
5. Environmental Impact of Bioenergy Production
a. How can the environmental need for diversity be balanced with the consequences of expanded crop production to create biofuels and the industrial need for uniformity of bioenergy feed stock sources?
6. Community and Rural Development Impacts of Bioenergy Production
a. What factors should planners of production facilities and co-ops consider (size, scale, infrastructure, etc.) to make sure they contribute to rural community development rather than impede it?
7. Local and Regional Economic Impact of Biofuel Production
a. What ownership models are most appropriate for sustainable bioenergy production enterprises?
b. What are the local/regional economic tradeoffs between bioenergy and livestock enterprises regarding the availability and costs of feedstocks?
c. What strategies develop local bioenergy markets and thereby better position farmers to address commodity price fluctuations.
8. Whole farm integrated energy systems
a. What models can be developed that use multiple aspects of a landscape and/or farm’s resources to provide a closed loop energy system from the production of nutrients through on-farm crop and livestock systems all the way to recycling farm wastes into more energy?
Through this vision, S-SARE hopes to more clearly articulate the need to use a systems approach to identify critical questions, develop innovative solutions, and solve both on-site and offsite problems that might limit sustainable development of bioenergy production as well as promote the most efficient use of all available energy.
For more information, please contact Jeff Jordan at firstname.lastname@example.org or (770) 412-4788.
Southern SARE thanks the following for providing documents or other input toward this paper:
- North Central SARE
- EPA Region 4, S.E. Diesel Collaborative