CHARDON, Ohio — Dale Arnold, director of energy services for the Ohio Farm Bureau, spoke glowingly of the future of farm-produced energy March 27.
Since last summer’s gas prices exceeded $4 a gallon and helped bring the economy down, people have become far more attuned to the need for domestic fuel and energy sources, he told the Geauga County Farm Bureau and a number of public officials at the Bass Lake Inn.
That awareness, concerns about national security and the President’s economic stimulus package offer an opportunity for funding of a number of energy projects at all levels, Arnold said.
Over the next 20 years Arnold projected the government will invest $2 trillion in refitting the country’s utility structure — the biggest project since the electric, phone and natural gas infrastructure was installed in the 1930s.
Agriculture has a chance to take advantage of this influx of money, he said.
While many interested parties will apply for stimulus funds to drill for oil and gas, erect windmills or set up solar panels and sell their excess energy to electric companies, farms have plenty to offer the domestic energy picture.
“The Statehouse and local leaders…are trying to give people tools and options to control their energy dollar,” Arnold said.
Farmers need to make sure they have a seat at the table when the pie is being divided, he said, adding, “We need to be involved in that conversation now.”
Some of those tools, as technology advances, will include the use of bio-mass and bio-fuels to feed alternative energy production facilities, either on large farms or centrally located for community access, he said.
“No single technology will address our needs,” Arnold said. “You have wind resources here. Solar (power) is something to really take a look at.”
But farmers could benefit largely from providing bio-mass to facilities that will convert hydrocarbon-rich materials into electricity.
“Look at anything with a hydrocarbon base — algae, grasses, manure, municipal yard waste,” Arnold said. “The technology is already there. Our focus is on doing as much on the farm as possible.”
When the concept was proposed a decade ago a farm had to have a lot of animals to justify installation of a conversion unit.
“Now farms with 150 animal units can do that type of thing,” Arnold said.
Ben Calkins, owner of The Great American Lamb Company in Newbury, Ohio, voiced some reservations after attending Arnold’s presentation.
Calkins said he personally knows of two renewable energy projects in the early stages of development and neither has been successful in obtaining adequate start-up money.
“I think, from what I know, that only the very largest farms — mega-farms — would have enough manure” to support a facility, he said.
There is technology whereby methane gas from a manure lagoon can be harvested and used as fuel, he added, but the facility to convert bio-mass to electricity costs millions of dollars
However, Calkins said there might be a demand for a centrally-located facility that could convert bio-mass from surrounding farms and other industries into electricity to be sold to the energy company.
Farmers might consider it a good thing to be able to dispose of their manure at no cost and it would be an added perk to be paid for it, he said.
“I do think this kind of renewable energy will come to pass. All bio-mass will produce power,” Calkins said.
But the demand for power would be likely to drive up the cost of hay, straw and corn as those commodities became used as fuel for generating electricity, he noted.
Gerald Mitchell, who farms 450 acres in Troy Township and milks 45 to 50 cows, said he uses manure as fertilizer for his crops so disposing of it is not an issue for him.
However, recycling crop waste such as corn stalks after harvest would be a good idea, Mitchell said.
Other technology has its appeal, as well. “It would be nice to heat your home (by burning) methane gas,” he said. “Who knows what’s going to happen? It looks like a new dawn to me.”