Northwest Renewable News

Your Daily Source for Renewable Energy News in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana & Northern California

Idaho energy offers many prospects (Part II) May 9, 2009

Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part look at energy consumption in Idaho and renewable opportunities across the state.

University of Idaho researcher Robert Zemetra is looking to the fields of Idaho to turn a waste product into a fuel source. Common sources of ethanol such as corn kernels and switchgrass take farmland away from the production of the world’s food supply. “Here you run into the food verses fuel debate,” he said.

Zemetra has a better idea for the future of ethanol. He proposes using the leftover straw from wheat production to distill ethanol, which still allows the grains to be used for food.

A refinery capable of wheat-straw ethanol production was slated to be built in Shelley, Idaho, but may be constructed in Canada instead.

The problem with using wheat straw for ethanol production, Zemetra said, is it requires breaking down the lignin-cellulosic structure of the wheat stalk to get to the sugars inside. This drawback can lead to a lower yield.

“Lignin has a direct effect on digestion,” he said. “Our idea is to modify the lignin to increase access (to sugars), thus increasing production.”

Zemetra hopes to create a low-lignin wheat stalk without affecting the quality of the grain. To accomplish this, he proposes using plant breeding or molecular re-structuring.

“It’s not necessarily genetic engineering,” he said, but acknowledged that it may be perceived as such.

He said this process is nothing new, but often receives a negative reaction from food consumers.

“We’ve had transgenic plants for probably five years now,” he said. “We’ve already told our wheat commission that until the public accepts transgenic wheat, we’re not going to put it into commercial production.”

Although Zemetra is already growing prototype plants in a greenhouse, he doesn’t anticipate full-scale production for at least another decade.

One of the challenges faced with lignin reduction is producing a wheat stalk that is structurally strong enough to support itself, he said.

Still, if he can successfully create a low-lignin wheat plant, he believes it will produce a cheap and widely available dual-use fuel source for the state of Idaho.

From the depths

Geothermal energy is the use of hot water or steam from below the surface of the earth for heat or electricity. It has been used in Idaho since the 1800s for everything from spas to greenhouses to the farming of warm-water fish and alligators. The Idaho State Capitol building complex is heated by geothermal energy.

Another more expensive use for geothermal energy is the conversion of hot water or steam to electricity. The U.S. Geothermal Raft River Facility located in southeast Idaho is the first geothermal electricity plant in the Northwest, according to the State of Idaho Office of Energy resources. It began generating in Jan. 2008, and can generate up to 110 megawatts of power.

“Idaho has substantial geothermal resources,” said Steven Peterson, a professor of business and economics at UI. “It has potential for much wider use.”

Peterson co-authored a study about the economic impacts of a possible geothermal electricity plant that could be constructed at Willow Springs Idaho. The study found the plant could create 240 jobs in Idaho and generate an estimated $10.2 million in earnings.

The problem with geothermal electricity, Peterson said, is it requires a substantial amount of money to get started.

“The fuel is nearly free,” he said. “But the marginal cost of capital is high.”

If constructed, the Willow Springs facility could cost $150 million for the facility itself. Labor for construction, studies and the drilling of test wells could cost another $260 million. But once completed, it could produce $37 million annually in net revenue, the study stated.

Peterson said the costs of start-up for alternative energies are often overlooked and unmentioned by politicians who talk about creating “green jobs” to stimulate the economy.

“Everything in economics has an opportunity cost,” he said. “In the long run, that could very well be true, but in the short run, people are going to lose jobs, and it is going to cost money until the fruition of those jobs in the future.”

To accelerate the development of alternative energy in Idaho, Peterson recommends policy makers provide incentives for using renewable sources and limiting the use of carbon-based energies.

“We need to move away to alternatives to oil because we are going to run out,” he said. “That’s not going to change.”

Reid Wright, Argonaut


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