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Farming for energy

Power has its price.

To run our cars, computers, homes, farms and businesses, our incomes are increasingly consumed by energy costs. The price of heat and electricity has soared; natural gas bills doubled last winter and propane prices have quadrupled in the past four years, according to recent articles in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Although gasoline prices may be leveling off, “I don’t think we’ll ever see dollar-a-gallon gas again,” says Max Norris, AURI oil scientist in Marshall. “The floor is going to be higher than it has ever been — we’ll be happy with $1.35 gas.”

Proposed solutions range from driving more fuel-efficient cars to drilling oil in the Alaskan wilderness. But there are farm solutions as well — in crops and livestock.

This year, the Minnesota Legislature was the first in the nation to consider mandating a two-percent biodiesel blend in all Minnesota diesel pumps by July 2003 — a minimal mandate since studies show diesel engines run efficiently on up to 20-percent soy-based fuel. Soy-based additives reduce sulfur emissions and keep engines lubricated. Though political maneuvers socked the measure this year, Norris says supporters “may be deterred but we’re not gone; we’ll be back.”

The added one-cent-per-gallon cost may be controversial, Norris says, but “we have to decide whether we want to contribute to an improved environment and if we’re willing to spend a penny to do that.”

There is also a national movement to add soy-based fuels to the 41 billion gallons of diesel consumed annually. U.S. Senators Mark Dayton, a Democrat from Minnesota, and Tim Hutchinson, a Republican from Arkansas, are cosponsoring a bill to provide a national three-cent-per-gallon tax credit for two-percent biodiesel blends. In the southwestern United States, gas stations are offering up to a 20-percent biodiesel blend.

Biodiesel is only one part of the farm energy solution. In this special focus section, Ag Innovation News looks at a resurgent interest in anaerobic manure digesters. Biogas captured by a digester on a central Minnesota dairy farm is generating more electricity than the farm family can use and they are selling it to their local power company. Ethanol production could become more profitable for farmer cooperatives as they investigate the value of coproducts, such as distiller’s dried grains. And a power plant that will generate electricity from poultry manure is going up in Benson, Minn.

“You can burn anything and get energy out of it,” Norris says. “I look at all these biocrops; these are materials that have energy potential — some will work better than others.”

“We’re on an alternative, renewable energy road that we must walk down.”