Non-traditional views about biomass and energy

In the United States, it is apparent that biomass has been put in a lead position for weaning the country off petroleum, but there has to be much more planning for efficient energy use and distribution of any and all energy sources, according to Ray Hammarlund, Energy Division director of the Kansas Corporation Commission.  

"We have put energy and agriculture in the same marketplace the likes of which mankind has never seen before. We did that without fully contemplating where we were going, Hammarlund said during the "Energy, Global Food Security and Ag Policy conference of the Kansas State University Master of Agribusiness program.

Kansas can play a major role in more than one of the seven forms of energy wind, solar, nuclear, hydro, natural gas, coal, oil, geothermal and biomass. Biomass and cellulosic ethanol is the main buzz for Kansas partly because of the potential of feedstock production.

"If you are going to build a biomass facility, then you ought to go where the biomass is intensively produced," Hammarlund said.

"We have a tremendous potential to diversify the risks in the feedstock inputs for biomass so that we don't put all our eggs in one basket. And we shouldn't assume that planting perennials like miscanthus and switchgrass are our only solution sets to our biomass future.

"How about using annuals for a biomass feedstock crop because a farmer can opportunistically jump in and out of the marketplace based on market forces? A farmer does not have to commit to a five-, seven- or 10-year commitment, such as miscanthus, that will only pay off in year three or four and locks the farmer into a solution set that may look unattractive that far out.

"There are tremendous potentials out there. We all talk about switchgrass and miscanthus, but why aren't we expanding the metaphor of the biomass potential in the United States beyond what we are using?

Distribution entrepreneurs needed

New forms or methods of producing energy are not the biggest opportunities for entrepreneurs in the energy market, Hammarlund said. Improvements in distribution, transmission and efficiency of energy use are areas that must be improved. We have to make massive investments into our transmission and distribution system just to keep it at the status quo, let alone meet new demands in the future.

"By the time that we take 100 percent of the available energy, run it through our system and we get done using it, we will have utilized 43 percent of that energy and we will have wasted about 57 percent of it. That is over a 50 percent slippage in the whole system, he said.

It is not electric distribution but all forms of energy averaged into the utilization percentage. As a common example, a motor vehicle engine only converts about 40 percent of the potential energy in gasoline to moving the vehicle.

Beyond slippage, another area of entrepreneurship might involve energy storage. "We have huge technological and financial hurdles to energy storage, and we have not cracked that nut yet. If you want to be richer beyond Bill Gates or Warren Buffet's dreams, you figure out a way to store electricity cheaply, safely and sustainably, Hammarlund said.

Additional energy thoughts

He continued with an emphasis on talking about electricity. "We pay for the entire system to meet the peak, and there are tremendous opportunities out there to shave that peak use, he explained. "I think load shifting, peaking shaving, and valley filling will be part of the marketplace out of necessity because our infrastructure is so poorly maintained. Ultimately, I believe it is the smartest thing to do anyway regardless of the transmission and distribution system."

Hammarlund said, "I'm trying to make you think bigger about the solutions across the entire value chain and all customer bases. There are tremendous opportunities out there."

Various points of additional information and food for thought provided by Hammarlund included:


  • Not all coal-fired plants, ethanol plants or wind turbine units are equal, and it is misleading to look at them as single units of energy production with the same level of efficiency.


  • There are few energy technologies and energy solutions that don't have some kind of environmental wart. We have to be cognizant of it because there are environmental interests everywhere.


  • Seventy-eight percent of all the energy in the U.S. is consumed on the coasts.


  • There are only 14 states in the U.S. with more than 1,000 megawatts of wind power production.


  • The hot, humid southeast United States does not have much wind power potential.


  • In general, we have very little solar energy generation taking place in the U.S.


  • Solar, water and thermal energy combinations have good potential for residential use.