As agriculture looks for ways to convert part of the nation's cropland into renewable energy, farmers and entrepreneurs are told not to confine efforts to ethanol and bio-diesel but should seek other alternatives.
“We don't need a silver bullet; we need silver buckshot,” says James Fischer, formerly with USDA Energy Science and Education, Research and Economics, now working in the private sector. He addressed the recent Texas Ag Forum in Austin.
Fischer says the options are as limitless as the imagination. And the need to transition away from petroleum is pressing.
“After the 1960s we've seen few oil field discoveries,” he said. “Oil is harder to find and for the last 20 years we've been using more than we're finding. Worldwide, we use two barrels of oil for every one we discover.”
He says developing countries are demanding more energy, especially electrical power. “As countries become more affluent they want electricity.” He said China's demands are increasing rapidly.
Fischer sees the solution to reduced dependence on foreign oil as a two-pronged effort — increased energy efficiency and transition to renewable fuels. He said current U.S. energy efficiency rating is about 39 percent. “We can do better. It's not only a matter of affecting our economy but also a national security concern.”
Currently, Saudi Arabia controls 21 percent of he world's oil reserves, Fischer said. The United States accounts for 25 percent of world energy use. The next closest is Japan with 7 percent. In addition to economics and security, he said reliance on fossil fuels also comes with an environmental consequence.
But we have options, Fischer says. “The best case scenario for the United States,” he said, “is to transition to renewable fuels. The worst case is to remain dependent and face oil supply interruptions as we did in the 1970s.”
He said a silver lining for agriculture from the 1970s oil crisis is a commitment to improve energy efficiency. “Agriculture has done a good job,” he said. Following the embargo agriculture turned more and more to reduced tillage systems and reduced fertilizer rates. Good thing, too, since U.S. farmers import most of the nitrogen they use. “Last year we got 60 percent of our nitrogen from imports.”
He said rural America provides the manufacturing capacity for ample energy. He said the country must tap wind, biomass, solar, geothermal, hydrogen and other sources for energy.
“Wind energy has made a significant change in Europe,” he said.
The United States has not made that commitment but the potential exists, especially since “wind energy is less expensive than it used to be because of improved engineering. Texas is the No. 1 wind producing state in the country.
“Wind can provide income for landowners and can create jobs for rural communities,” he said. Challenges include environmental concerns.
Solar energy also offers opportunities, as does crop-based energy sources.
Government support has increased significantly the past few years and will continue to gain momentum. “We have moved forward,” Fischer said. “New directives by the federal government demand more energy efficiency.”
Included in those directives will be renewable energy use. “Renewable energy interest is growing fast but now it's just a sliver (of total consumption). It will take 15 years to change automobiles.”
Fischer said the country must reduce dependence on petroleum. “It's our — nation, states and industries — opportunity and our responsibility to transition. We can't escape this issue. It's a supply and demand strategy: We need to decrease demand for petroleum and switch to renewable fuels.”