With the Michigan Legislature reviewing bills calling for 10 percent of the state’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2015, some experts say bioenergy could fuel the state’s effort to reach that goal.

Sen. Glenn Anderson (D-Westland), who sponsored the Senate bill, said Michigan must reduce its reliance on fossil fuels because of their limited supply and negative environmental effects. He projected that “by a certain date,” up to 15 percent of Michigan’s energy could come from renewable sources.

While the greatest potential source for alternative energy is wind, Anderson said, bioenergy research also shows great promise. “There are a lot of things that are currently in the process for biomass,” Anderson said. “I do believe that it is a direction we need to be moving in.”

Bioenergy, which contains energy stored from the sun, comes from plant and animal byproducts like garbage, crops, manure and wood. Cellulosic bioenergy comes from plants like willow and switchgrass, a prairie grass, that aren’t used in food production.

Anderson said bioenergy was a source Michigan needed to incorporate into its “general equation,” but that for alternative energy as a whole, it was too soon to rely entirely on it.

Danielle Korpalski, an environmental associate for Environment Michigan, an organization that supports the renewable energy bills, said Michigan has considerable potential to use bioenergy technology, especially in the upper peninsula.

“The upper peninsula has a bigger chance for prosperity in the biomass field, just because they have a lot of wood waste and other cellulosic waste products from the different types of harvesting and forestry they do up there,” she said. “It’s a bigger hot spot for biomass.”

There are already centers in Michigan that generate electricity from wood chips.

Korpalski said there was initial concern that companies would use the bills as incentives to cut down forests for biofuel, but the bills specify that any bioenergy produced from lumber must come from wood waste that would otherwise be thrown out.

Many experts are debating the feasibility and efficiency of bioenergy fuels, or sources that can be used to make ethanol or biodiesel for transportation. The most common form of ethanol production uses corn, but School of Natural Resources and Environment Prof. Donald Scavia said the environmental costs of using corn for fuel outweigh the benefits.

“The environmental impacts are enormous,” he said. “Corn is a very leaky crop, and a lot of the fertilizer ends up in groundwater.”

The nitrogen and phosphorous pollution generated from fertilizer used to grow corn contaminates groundwater, Scavia said, which can cause an oxygen deficiency syndrome in infants called blue-baby syndrome.

The fertilizer also contains an herbicide, atrazine, which is known to cause cancer.

Scavia said the nitrates from corn ethanol production flow down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico, contributing to what is known as the Dead Zone – a region of water that can’t sustain aquatic life because of its low oxygen concentration.

A boost in corn ethanol production would increase the number of corn plantations, which would then increase nitrogen pollution.

Scavia said research has shown that corn ethanol production, at times, releases too much carbon, hurting the argument that ethanol production emits less greenhouse gases.

“There’s a better energy balance with switchgrass and willow,” Scavia said. “Most of these issues will go away.”

Duncan Callaway, a researcher at the Center for Sustainable Systems in the School of Natural Resources and Environment, said switchgrass has more promise in producing ethanol than corn because the crop is more energy efficient.

“To produce switchgrass theoretically requires less energy than it does to produce ethanol from corn,” he said. “But the problem is that in order to be an economically viable source for ethanol, the chemical engineering and bio-engineering need to be further refined.”

Callaway said he thinks it would be feasible to use switchgrass and willow in the long-term but in the meantime, Michigan will still primarily use corn to produce ethanol.

University researchers are also looking at how to use willow as an alternative to corn in bioenergy fuel production.

Greg Keoleian, co-director of the Center for Sustainable Systems in the School of Natural Resources and Environment, said researchers have found promising results with willow as a source for fuel.

“When you look at the fossil energy that goes into producing willow, you’re going to get 10 times more electricity back than from conventional grid,” Keoleian said.

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