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Rural Economies Set to Benefit Most from Bioenergy

Mar 10, 2014 05:06 PM EDT

A grid of rural power plants fueled by biomass could prove to be an energy solution for farmers while also reducing strain on the national power grid, according to a University of Missouri researcher.

Writing in the journal Biomass and Bioenergy, Tom Johnson, a professor of agriculture and applied economics, reports that as bioenergy becomes an evermore feasible option in rural communities, it will make more sense to generate energy locally, rather than relying on an overworked grid system.

Johnson said that transporting power to rural areas through power lines is expensive and inefficient in most cases, and that the biomass that is abundant in rural communities can be easily turned into energy. Biomass is any organic material which has stored sunlight in the form of chemical energy, such as wood, wood waste, straw, manure and sugarcane. Bioenergy is the energy extracted from biomass.

It's possible now to build a biomass power plant at relatively low cost and on small plots of land, Johnson said.

"Farmers already have access to a large amount of biomass material left over each year after harvests," he said. "If they had access to small biomass power plants, they could become close to self-sustaining in terms of power. If the grid was improved enough, they could even provide additional power to other people around the country, helping to stabilize the national power grid. This could help save rural citizens money and be a boon for rural economies."

As time goes by, Johnson contends the bioenergy option will become a clear choice in rural communities. He backs this up by citing the lower transportation costs associated with sourcing fuel locally. And with abundant fuel, Johnson says large companies with large energy needs will begin to find rural areas attractive because of their low cost of energy, which could improve economies.

However, current policy that does not favor the construction of rural biofuel power plants stands in the way of this becoming a reality, Johnson said.

"This is unlikely to occur without clearly articulated goals coupled with strategic guidance from policy," he said. "We need an integration of policy and programs among community leaders, rural entrepreneurs and economic developers or practitioners who act as conduits between entrepreneurs and policy. In order to grow this bioeconomy, the goals of these actors need to be aligned."

Johnson contends that an effort will also need to be made to treat biomass as a resource and protect it as one as well. Protecting locals will be another important condition, Johnson suggests. Otherwise, local citizens living around bioenergy power stations run the risk of becoming affected by the destruction of renewable resources and potential environmental degradation.

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