Op Ed: Want to Save the Planet? Save Farms First

Biogas can be produced from an anaerobic process utilizing sewage, manure or the gas from landfills...

comments
Gary Bergstrom, professor of plant pathology, addresses growers and agency personnel at the Perennial Biofeedstock Energy Tour (Blaine Friedlander/Cornell Chronicle)
Gary Bergstrom, professor of plant pathology, addresses growers and agency personnel at the Perennial Biofeedstock Energy Tour (Blaine Friedlander/Cornell Chronicle)

Guest Viewpoint by Ed Nizalowski via The Ithaca Journal, 8/20/13

The debate over our energy future has a variety of players jostling each other on the world and domestic stage. Several have written themselves substantial parts and, because of tradition and the entrenched power of their roles, certain ones have dominated the energy drama. Perhaps one could call these the fossil-fuel protagonists. The newer players keep exercising more muscle and squeeze larger shares of stage presence. These might be called the alternative energy protagonists. Whether these are villains or heroes or some of both is still being written into the script.

One of the players in this energy drama are the biofuels. These can be made from sugar, starch or vegetable oil. Biogas can be produced from an anaerobic process utilizing sewage, manure or the gas from landfills. Fuels have been made from an algal process.

A related area of research falls into the category of biomass. Developing the viability and practicality of using biomass materials for energy production is being done in our backyard (so to speak). The Natural Resources Conservation Service, a division of the United State Department of Agriculture, has a Plant Materials Division located in Big Flats. It does research for an area that encompasses all of New England and most of New York and Pennsylvania. On July 31, the facility hosted its seventh  Tour and Presentations.

The focus for research at this division is switchgrass, a native grass of the North American prairie. Switchgrass serves multiple uses as ground cover, forage, soil conservation, wildlife habitat, ornamental grass and, since the mid-1980s, an energy source. The morning at the facility was spent hearing from a variety of scientists and technicians from Cornell University regarding germination rates, species comparisons, biomass yields, rate of growth and pathogen issues.

After lunch, a demonstration showed a small-scale biomass gasification and power generation unit capable of producing 20 electrical kilowatts. This was done by the Renewable Energy Training Center at Morrisville, which offers a degree in renewable energy technology.

Presentations in the afternoon included Jerry Horton of Sweetwater Energy Inc., located in Rochester. Tom Schwartz of FDC Enterprises, based in Ohio, also presented. His company has established more than 225,000 acres of native grass across 21 states, some of which is used for biomass production. His company got a multimillion-dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop protocols for collection, storage and transport of biomass to use for bioenergy.

A debate is currently underway to decide the fate of both the Cayuga Power Plant in Lansing and a similar plant in Dunkirk. Martha Robertson, chairwoman of the Tompkins County Legislature but speaking on her own behalf, gave testimony to the Public Services Commission on July 29 encouraging that these plants should remain open and be retrofitted to co-fire coal and biomass. This might not be an ideal option, but it is worth considering.

Nizalowski is a Newark Valley resident.

Views expressed in News posts may not be those of Cornell University. No endorsement is implied.