State's Biomass Resources Some of the Best

SwitchgrassRecent attention has focused on Nebraska's wind resources and the first steps by electric utilities to harness those resources. Often overlooked are the abundant possibilities in using the state's fertile lands to grow bioenergy crops or use crop wastes, to produce electricity and other types of energy. Bioenergy is the conversion of complex carbohydrates in organic matter - such as grasses, trees or garbage - into energy, either by using it directly as fuel or by processing it into liquids and gases that are more efficient.

In the Top Five

In 1993, the Union of Concerned Scientists conducted an extensive study of renewable resources in the Midwest. Nebraska's biomass resources were substantial:

The study also found Nebraska's energy crop potential was significant:

Last fall, when the President signed an executive order aiming to triple the nation's use of biomass resources by 2010, a federal study pegged the possible growth in farm income at $15 to $20 billion annually.

The economic impact of increasing use of biomass resources was estimated at $2.5 billion annually in Nebraska, of which at least half would stay in rural areas of the state. According the state's Department of Agriculture, Nebraska earns $9 billion from all farm products annually. The economic impact to rural Nebraska would be equal to half the $5 billion yearly impact of agricultural exports.

The regional potential for use of switchgrass, alfalfa and fast-growing poplars was estimated at 310 billion kilowatthours, almost one-and-a-half times the electricity use in the seven state region that includes the Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri as well as Nebraska. Another 86 billion kilowatthours could be derived from crop and municipal solid wastes.

Today, the Energy Information Administration estimates only three percent of the energy used in America comes from biomass resources. Wood and ethanol feedstocks, especially corn and grain sorghum, are the predominant resources used.

Energy and Beyond

Some biomass advocates are looking beyond producing energy. Soon they hope to substitute petroleum-based chemicals with organically-derived ones.

One such venture is breaking ground at the nearby Cargill corn complex in Blair, in eastern Nebraska. In January, Cargill and Dow Chemical announced a joint venture to commercialize "natural plastic." The companies will spend an estimated $300 million on the NatureWorks venture over the next two years.

The plant, which should be operational in late 2001, will produce 300 million pounds of the new plastic - called polyactide - a year from 14 million bushels of corn. This organic plastic can be used instead of polystyrene in insulated cups and polyethylene in soft drink bottles, for example. Other products could include garbage bags and clothing. Unlike petroleum-based plastics, organic plastics decompose readily.

Return to the Spring 2000 Newsletter