Editorial: Clean energy, Iowa prosperity – The Storm Lake Times

What does Iowa look like in a net-zero carbon economy? A third less land in corn, supplanted by biomass energy crops like switchgrass to produce hydrogen fuel and more efficient ethanol. And: 200,000 new jobs in energy over the next decade in The Tall Corn State at hundreds of biomass conversion plants, installing solar arrays and wind turbines, and in agriculture.

That’s the vision from a team of Princeton University energy experts who used the world’s best modeling to figure out what it will take to reach the net-zero goal by 2050. The study was hailed in The New York Times as one of the most comprehensive to date. It is both dazzlingly hopeful and daunting. For example, we must double the number of residential heat pumps and convert drivers to electric cars, starting now. Likewise, we must double the amount of renewable energy, eliminate coal for electricity, rebuild the transmission grid and invest massive amounts in carbon capture technology. 

The fantastic news is this: 

The Upper Midwest, which has suffocated under a mountain of corn, would capture many of the benefits of a renewable energy economy. First, our soils hold the most potential for biomass production and our current weather is most conducive. Second, agriculture is the second-leading contributor of greenhouse gases behind energy; converting land to grass currently devoted to growing corn for ethanol would greatly reduce our carbon footprint. We can capture 200 million tons of carbon in the soil, at least, in the next decade by changing land uses. The reduction in agriculture’s contribution to global warming can be as great as the nation’s energy fleet — while making rural areas more prosperous with new investment, income streams and high-paying jobs. There is plenty of land for food production. The scientists contemplate merely shifting its use from corn ethanol to grass feedstocks. 

Farmers will be able to quintuple their revenue per acre by growing energy biomass over corn for ethanol, the Princeton researchers report. Technology has not answered how to power airplanes, for one, using heavy batteries. Biofuels and hydrogen will be necessary as net-zero- emitting fuels for certain uses. They can be created using a process called pyrolysis to generate hydrogen fuel and a residue called biochar that can greatly enhance carbon capture and soil health in place of chemical fertilizers. 

“The scale of what we have to build in a very short time frame surprised me,” said Christopher Greig, a senior scientist at Princeton’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, in an interview with The New York Times. “We can do this, we can afford this, but now it’s time to roll up our sleeves and figure out how to get it done.” 

President-elect Joe Biden has made net-zero by 2050 his goal. Increasingly, that goal is shared by corporations that heretofore have resisted attempts to shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy. In agriculture, consensus is building on left and right that there needs to be a radically different model on how we approach natural resource conservation, income security and diversity in production for food security. Biden has promised to make agriculture central to his climate agenda. 

It could be a real game changer for Iowa in particular. It has the second-highest potential for land conversion to biomass energy production, next to Wisconsin, and it would demand the most hydrogen and liquid biofuel production plants. Of course, rural areas lend themselves most to wind and solar development by space alone. But the researchers accurately note that there can be local political pressures that hold back turbine and transmission development. We have seen that in Iowa. But when you explain that a landowner could greatly increase income, either through wind turbines or growing switchgrass, the conversion will occur and opposition quickly melts. The wind complexes that surround us stand as testimony. The margins will improve as demand for clean power rises, as it is, which is what drives acceptance. 

We must hasten the change now. A new farm bill discussion starts in January. The focus should be how to conserve soil and water while making rural areas more prosperous. Buena Vista County farmers plant less than 1 percent of their acres to cover crops annually. How do we get that to 100%? By paying farmers to do it. Pay them to plant corn, they will plant corn. Pay them more to plant grass, and the conversion will occur in a year. If we value conservation, we will pay for it. (The analysis shows that even with extra payments for land conversion, energy costs for consumers would be the same or less than now.) 

The report details the urgency of the climate crisis. As important, it shows us vividly that the areas that have seen the most economic decline over the past half-century — the rural Upper Midwest, the western Great Plains and Appalachia — will see the most economic benefit from a new energy and food economy. The Princeton researchers suggest that it would be a period of prosperity that Iowa has not seen while contributing mightily to saving the planet. The main issue is capital to drive the transition. Biden’s plan addresses it, and he should find support in a Senate dominated by rural areas that would reap the rewards. You can find the study here: environmenthalfcentury.princeton.edu 

Clean energy, Iowa prosperity 

What does Iowa look like in a net-zero carbon economy? A third less land in corn, supplanted by biomass energy crops like switchgrass to produce hydrogen fuel and more efficient ethanol. And: 200,000 new jobs in energy over the next decade in The Tall Corn State at hundreds of biomass conversion plants, installing solar arrays and wind turbines, and in agriculture. 

That’s the vision from a team of Princeton University energy experts who used the world’s best modeling to figure out what it will take to reach the net-zero goal by 2050. The study was hailed in The New York Times as one of the most comprehensive to date. It is both dazzlingly hopeful and daunting. For example, we must double the number of residential heat pumps and convert drivers to electric cars, starting now. Likewise, we must double the amount of renewable energy, eliminate coal for electricity, rebuild the transmission grid and invest massive amounts in carbon capture technology. 

The fantastic news is this: 

The Upper Midwest, which has suffocated under a mountain of corn, would capture many of the benefits of a renewable energy economy. First, our soils hold the most potential for biomass production and our current weather is most conducive. Second, agriculture is the second-leading contributor of greenhouse gases behind energy; converting land to grass currently devoted to growing corn for ethanol would greatly reduce our carbon footprint. We can capture 200 million tons of carbon in the soil, at least, in the next decade by changing land uses. The reduction in agriculture’s contribution to global warming can be as great as the nation’s energy fleet — while making rural areas more prosperous with new investment, income streams and high-paying jobs. There is plenty of land for food production. The scientists contemplate merely shifting its use from corn ethanol to grass feedstocks. 

Farmers will be able to quintuple their revenue per acre by growing energy biomass over corn for ethanol, the Princeton researchers report. Technology has not answered how to power airplanes, for one, using heavy batteries. Biofuels and hydrogen will be necessary as net-zero- emitting fuels for certain uses. They can be created using a process called pyrolysis to generate hydrogen fuel and a residue called biochar that can greatly enhance carbon capture and soil health in place of chemical fertilizers. 

“The scale of what we have to build in a very short time frame surprised me,” said Christopher Greig, a senior scientist at Princeton’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, in an interview with The New York Times. “We can do this, we can afford this, but now it’s time to roll up our sleeves and figure out how to get it done.” 

President-elect Joe Biden has made net-zero by 2050 his goal. Increasingly, that goal is shared by corporations that heretofore have resisted attempts to shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy. In agriculture, consensus is building on left and right that there needs to be a radically different model on how we approach natural resource conservation, income security and diversity in production for food security. Biden has promised to make agriculture central to his climate agenda. 

It could be a real game changer for Iowa in particular. It has the second-highest potential for land conversion to biomass energy production, next to Wisconsin, and it would demand the most hydrogen and liquid biofuel production plants. Of course, rural areas lend themselves most to wind and solar development by space alone. But the researchers accurately note that there can be local political pressures that hold back turbine and transmission development. We have seen that in Iowa. But when you explain that a landowner could greatly increase income, either through wind turbines or growing switchgrass, the conversion will occur and opposition quickly melts. The wind complexes that surround us stand as testimony. The margins will improve as demand for clean power rises, as it is, which is what drives acceptance. 

We must hasten the change now. A new farm bill discussion starts in January. The focus should be how to conserve soil and water while making rural areas more prosperous. Buena Vista County farmers plant less than 1 percent of their acres to cover crops annually. How do we get that to 100%? By paying farmers to do it. Pay them to plant corn, they will plant corn. Pay them more to plant grass, and the conversion will occur in a year. If we value conservation, we will pay for it. (The analysis shows that even with extra payments for land conversion, energy costs for consumers would be the same or less than now.) 

The report details the urgency of the climate crisis. As important, it shows us vividly that the areas that have seen the most economic decline over the past half-century — the rural Upper Midwest, the western Great Plains and Appalachia — will see the most economic benefit from a new energy and food economy. The Princeton researchers suggest that it would be a period of prosperity that Iowa has not seen while contributing mightily to saving the planet. The main issue is capital to drive the transition. Biden’s plan addresses it, and he should find support in a Senate dominated by rural areas that would reap the rewards. You can find the study here: environmenthalfcentury.princeton.edu 

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