Gas from Grass

February 4, 2011 05:37 PM
Gas from Grass

Tired of mowing ditches and waterways? A Minnesota rural community aims to harvest the native grasses from buffer strips, ditches, sloughs and field waterways to produce biofuel to power the
town. Perennial crops that sequester carbon in the soil and filter nutrient loads from groundwater are part of the plan, too. All this and new jobs make up a farm-spun energy concept called "the Madelia Model."

Madelia, Minn., population 2,500, is the farm town prototype for this biomass effort. The premise is to grow or collect enough biomass from natural and industrial sources within a 25-mile radius to fuel the entire town and still export coproducts to other biobased industries.

Community Support. The community jumped on the bandwagon in 2003, and steps have been taken to make the energy concept a reality. However, as with many such efforts, the fight is on to secure funding.

The city of Madelia, its chamber of commerce and Madelia Light and Power continue to be involved in the proposal.

Sanford "Sandy" Seibert, a farmer and participant in the early discussions and a local soil and water conservation supporter, says he still embraces the project’s vision.

"It was one of the first cellulosic venture ideas," Seibert says. "The consensus was that grass off 200 acres, perhaps harvested twice a year, was what it would take to provide power to nearly 3,000 people in Madelia. If you baled all the ditches and available land in a township, you probably have enough [biomass] to do just that."

The downturn in the economy, though, has left many projects, such as Madelia’s, without funding.

"The problem now for a project like the Madelia Model is that there’s no money for it," Seibert says. "Any business or government entity has to analyze what to cut. When you don’t have money, you’ve got to make tough cuts. The danger is that you can cut too much."

Regaining Control. The Madelia Model feedstock value chain allows local people and economies to regain control of the manufacturing process—from growing crops to final processing of the renewable energy product, says Linda Meschke, president of Rural Advantage, a Fairmont, Minn.–based nonprofit that seeks grant funding for initiatives aimed at improving rural opportunities for agriculture, the environment and communities.

The Madelia Model proposes converting less than 5% of the landscape to perennials for energy crop production; corn and soybeans would remain the principal crops.

The model has a three-step plan for eco-industrial development. It calls first for identifying a source of biomass supply. Madelia figures it has passed that test. Not only does it have the grass to make the gas, but educational community meetings provide a base of support.

The next step is to research and plan a facility to process the biomass into energy. The third phase involves finding a market for the energy and coproducts in order to make them profitable.

Actual production and facility construction is planned within the next five to 10 years.

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Spell Check

2/5/2011 03:05 AM

  Just think of how much 'GAS' that could be harvested from all the grasses around the White House and other governmental agencies.


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