September 28, 2005

Cornell Spearheads 'Green' Bioenergy Use With Grant

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The Northeast Sun Grant Center of Excellence, based out of Cornell, has been awarded more than $8.2 million in federal funding over the next four years to explore and promote biopower as an alternate to oil-based power. The University will facilitate the coordination of land-grant universities by issuing competitive grants to promote regional use of biofuel.

Thomas Fretz, executive director of the Northeastern Regional Association of State Agricultural Experiment Station Directors, said that the grants awarded by the center would be focused around biopower and bioproducts.

“Funding in any one of those areas might work on things such as feedstock development, conversion processes, system integration and public policy, which is affiliated with the implementation of the biobased economy,” he said.

In 2001, Sen. Tom Daschle (R-S.D.) proposed the Sun Grant Initiative, a nationwide network of land-grant universities and U.S. Department of Energy laboratories partnering to build a biobased economy. The formal mission of the Sun Grant Initiative has three components: the enhancement of national energy security through development, distribution and implementation of biobased energy technologies; the promotion of biobased diversification and environmental sustainability of America’s agriculture; and the promotion of opportunities for biobased economic diversification in rural communities.

Cornell, as the lead university of the Northeast Sun Grant Institute of Excellence, heads the coordination of regional efforts of the initiative in the states ranging from Maine to Maryland to Michigan.

“The Northeast region differs from the Midwest and Southeast in that the biomass resources that we have to work with are much broader,” said Prof. Larry Walker, director of the institute, citing interest in converting New York City’s cafeteria oils into biodiesel as an example. Walker says the regional approach to the initiative will foster collaboration.

“We’re hoping that people from around the region will come together, team up and respond to this request for proposals,” said Walker.

According to Walker, Cornell was “prepositioned to be involved with the Sun Grant Initiative.”

“We didn’t just fall into this, the money didn’t drive the interest; the interest was there before the opportunity came,” he said.

Although Cornell was awarded the funding last August, the University is still in the process of receiving the money.

“Once the budget is in place, we will be bringing together a proposed Northeast Sun Grant steering committee, and will begin to set some of the parameters within the three strategic areas,” said Fretz. After the steering committee sets the parameters of the proposals, they will be drafted, reviewed by a peer panel and funded accordingly.

Despite long-term concerns about sustainability, the national revival of interest in a biobased economy is a fairly recent phenomenon.

“Societies are not really good at looking at the long term; they tend to react to the immediate – look at the fact that we have issues in terms of energy costs and availability, concerns about climate change, environmental quality,” said Walker. He compares the country’s eventual transition to a biobased economy to the earlier gradual transition to an oil-based economy.

“You don’t make transitions overnight; transitions occur over years and decades,” he said. “I think what we’re looking at in the next 20 years through conservation approaches, through technology deployment is trying to get upwards to 25 to 30 percent of our energy from biomass,” said Walker. Currently, less than 10 percent of chemicals and commodities and less than 5 percent of U.S. energy supplies are derived from agriculturally-based resources.

Archived article by Katie Pollack
Sun Staff Writer