MADISON – Researchers and engineers across Wisconsin are learning new ways to produce energy from cow manure, wood chips, organic sugars, soybeans, solar collectors, corn stover, wind farms, grease, waste from paper mills and much more.
State businesses, architects and builders are national leaders in planning and constructing “green” buildings that save energy and money.
Wisconsin policymakers and utility company executives have set ambitious goals for biofuels production, conservation and alternative energy generation.
Those credentials should put Wisconsin in the running for one of two bio-energy research and technology development centers on the drawing boards for the U.S. Department of Energy. If the state’s story is told – and told well – the DOE may give Wisconsin the serious consideration it deserves.
A joint proposal was filed Feb. 1 by the UW System, UW-Madison and Michigan State University to open a federal energy research lab in Madison. Molly Jahn, dean of the UW-Madison College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, has described the proposal as a strong fit with faculty, staff and student projects related to bio-energy. Those projects are taking place in disciplines that encompass biology, agriculture, engineering, natural resources and the social sciences.
“The UW College of Agricultural and Life Sciences has a renewed commitment to this important sector that employs thousands of people, generates millions of dollars to our state’s economy, and whose advancements are improving the quality of life for hundreds of millions of people around the globe,” Jahn said.
Consider the resources on the UW-Madison campus alone – let alone the UW System and Michigan State, which, like Wisconsin, has expertise in forest products and papermaking.
In late 2007, the $120-million Microbial Sciences Building will open on the UW-Madison campus. Early in 2008, work will begin on the $150-million first phase of the Morgridge Institute for Research and the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, a public-private research enterprise made possible by a $50 million gift from UW-Madison alumni John and Tashia Morgridge, as well as matching gifts from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and the state of Wisconsin.
Other advances in biosciences research, applications and training will stem from existing programs such as the Wisconsin Biotechnology Center, the Food Research Institute, the masters in biotechnology program, the Center for Eukaryotic Structural Genomics and the world’s top Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics program. Also contributing are National Institutes of Health training grants in genetics, nutritional sciences, and the chemical-biological interface.
Just off campus is the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory, where director Chris Ribrudt is leading an effort to take advantage of Wisconsin’s heavily forested landscape and the paper industry to turn wood products into cellulosic ethanol.
It will be months before the next phase of the federal selection process begins, but the collaborative effort should merit a hard look in Washington. If Wisconsin is successful, it could mean several hundred jobs and tens of millions of dollars within five years.
Wisconsin is bereft of fossil fuels – oil, coal and natural gas – but it has an abundance of biofuel sources and a reputation for innovation.
While other states focus exclusively on corn-based ethanol, Wisconsin is racing to produce ethanol from other biomass sources. Several companies are racing to produce ethanol from plant cellulose. Another is developing enzymes to make ethanol from soybeans. Still another is working to produce hydrogen from plant sugars. There are more methane digesters (which generate energy from animal waste) in Wisconsin than any state outside California.
Wisconsin has the right combination of natural resources, academic R&D, public commitment and private sector innovation. It also has a tradition of transforming agriculture to meet the needs of the day. If the Department of Energy wants to find a fitting home for one of its bio-energy centers, it should put Wisconsin on the short list.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.