Bringing Practical Biomass Energy to Rural Communities

Ed. Note: Champions of Change is a weekly initiative to highlight Americans who are making an impact in their communities and helping our country rise to meet the many challenges of the 21st century.

The second generation of bioenergy crops has the potential to produce more energy on poorer soils and with fewer inputs than any crops we use for energy now. But turning this potential into practical, profitable crops may only come when farmers have had a chance to work with them.

Selecting the most promising crops from research conducted at the University of Illinois and drawing on the experience of the farmers we visited in Germany and Austria, we found that the economics and logistics of biomass production and its use on our farm and in our community looked very promising. The holdup is a “chicken or egg” situation. No farmer wants to plant a new crop without a market, and new markets won’t develop without a supply.

In Europe we also learned how even small amounts of biomass can be effectively used to replace oil, coal, and gas to heat homes, farm buildings, schools, and businesses. As supplies of biomass increase, power plants and even cellulosic ethanol plants can be considered; however, using locally produced biomass will, in most instances, prove to be beneficial to producers and end users alike, thus strengthening the community.

Billions of dollars (both private and public) are being spent to learn how to convert biomass to liquid fuels. Yet, unless we provide the incentive to establish biomass crops, we won’t have them when we need them. It would be akin to spending billions to research and build a new fighter jet and then realizing that we have no fuel to fly it.

The BCAP (Biomass Crop Assistance Program), part of the 2008 farm bill, is designed to encourage farmers to plant biomass by cost-sharing the establishment of the crops. With BCAP incentives in place, farmers are much more inclined to make a commitment to planting these crops. The resulting biomass supplies will encourage the development of new biomass uses and markets.

I am honored to have been named a Champion of Change by the Obama Administration, and I am very humbled by the caliber of people with whom I share this honor. Not all would consider the ideas we brought to the table as revolutionary, but these ideas have sparked practical and successful projects in rural areas across the country. When the White House invites ordinary people tell their own stories, it allows decision makers to hear the original thinking behind these projects, ideas unaltered by any association or lobby. I hope that the Champions of Change program continues for many years to come.

The highlight of this wonderful experience was to have President Obama greet us each personally. My only regret is that “The Brilliant Thing” I would say if I ever met the President of the United States went straight out of my head when we shook hands. Instead, I invited him to visit our farm in Illinois. After all, he had invited me to his place. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then walking out to the rough ground where the biomass is growing (between the stream and the good soil reserved for corn) will tell the story much better than anything I can say in a meeting. Standing there, it will be easy to see the great ability that American farmers have to produce both food and fuel, while protecting our soils, waters, and wildlife.

Eric Rund, a corn farmer, formed Green Flame Energy and offers seed stock, equipment and services to other farmers wishing to grow and utilize biomass energy.

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