By Tom Still

MADISON – Will Wisconsin join the biofuels parade as the marketplace elephant passes by – or follow behind with a shovel?


That question was raised by state Sen. Bob Jauch, the veteran Democrat from Poplar, during Tuesday’s Capitol debate over the state’s 2007-2009 budget bill. So far, the answer isn’t pretty.


The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, which is working on the $57.7 billion budget bill sent to them by Gov. Jim Doyle, has declined to back a proposal to make $30.1 million available for a renewable energy grant and loan program. Eight Democrats voted for it; eight Republicans against it, mainly because it represented new spending in a tight budget. It now falls to the Senate or Assembly to revive the idea.


“The bio economy is going to be the new industrial revolution,” Jauch said Tuesday, as the committee debated other economic development programs. Wisconsin will “take a backseat to every other state in the nation” unless it invests now, he added.


Doyle wants the state to award grants or loans to businesses and researchers to fund the development and commercialization of new energy technologies, from biofuels to conservation technologies. He specifically called for a grant of up to $5 million (from the $30.1 million total) to build a cellulosic ethanol plant in Wisconsin.


Corn-based ethanol is already here, and many states have a competitive edge over Wisconsin because of their corn-growing capacity. In addition, there are limitations on the net energy produced by corn-based ethanol, which has a 25 to 30 percent payback compared to the energy invested in its production. Some scientists see it as a “transition” fuel, so it’s not surprising some lawmakers would balk at investing in the technology.


Cellulosic ethanol has the potential to be very different. It is ethanol produced from other biomass sources, ranging from wood to paper waste to switchgrass. Many researchers believe cellulosic ethanol can offer much greater energy payback, fewer environmental consequences and be produced at a much lower cost.


Wisconsin is positioned to be a leader in cellulosic ethanol because its forest cover (16 million acres out of 34.7 million total), its existing paper and pulp industries, and its experience in managing this resource through facilities such as the National Forest Products Laboratory. Even our conservation heritage comes into play: By removing the excess cellulosic material in our forests and converting it to energy, we would actually improve the health of our forests.


Wisconsin also has an edge in producing hydrogen from biomass, especially sugars. This is another area where state R&D investment today will produce dividends, and jobs, down the road.


All renewable technologies have their detractors and their fans, of course, but some other technologies may have more potential than others.


n      Wind energy has strong appeal in some parts of the country or the world, but there may be limits on where wind turbines can be placed in Wisconsin. Existing wind pathways have generally been identified and the state’s utilities are already working with others to advance that technology. Wind is an intermittent energy source, operating generally at about 35 percent efficiency. And wind is most inefficient on hot summer days – when the extra power is most needed.

n      Wisconsin’s hydroelectric generation potential is very mature, and the environmental management trend toward removing dams in rivers (the BarabooRiver project is a nationally acclaimed example) will likely mean less hydroelectric production, not more.

n      Nuclear energy can and should be considered a “renewable” source because of technologies that allow for next-generation plants to reuse fuel. Nuclear energy is also a greenhouse-friendly source. However, political objections to nuclear energy persist in some corners, primarily over waste disposal. The R&D effort in this arena is national and international in scope, and includes cutting-edge research by the UW-Madison College of Engineering. By and large, it is not an area in which a state grant and loan program will make a significant difference. Conversely, removing Wisconsin’s 1980s moratorium on building new plants would help.

n      Solar energy is a here-and-now technology in its “passive” form, meaning rooftop solar panels, solar thermal heaters and the like. But mass production of solar energy remains elusive and prohibitively expensive. Again, Wisconsin doesn’t have a natural advantage. Wisconsin (about 55 percent sunny days) is not Arizona (85 percent), and data show we rank in the bottom half of the 50 states when it comes to getting our share of sunshine.

Doyle’s $30.1 million proposal could be a pace-setter if it focuses on technologies and resources where Wisconsin has an edge. The markets are deciding now who will lead the 21st century energy parade. Wisconsin cannot afford stand by, shovel in hand.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the WisconsinState Journal in Madison.