Sunday, April 22, 2012

Energy and Madelia Minnesota

Madelia Minnesota is quite close (50 km. / 30 miles) to where I spent much of my childhood.  In fact, the video thumbnail on the embedded YouTube below is taken at the local fertilizer plant.  Yes this plant is very large.  It is owned by a farmers' cooperative called Crystal Valley Coop that has been around since 1927.  It's members have roughly one million acres under cultivation (400,000 hectares) so they probably use most of the output of this plant.

As you read the story below about the little home-grown energy experiment that appeared in Smithsonian Magazine, try to keep in mind the concept of scale.  This is an area of the world where a relatively small coop owns its own fertilizer plant.  This coop isn't your dirty little neighborhood grocery store run by hippies—these people think BIG because that is the scale of their actions.  And while I am pretty certain the folks in Madelia would be delighted if some biofuel operation could produce the liquid fuels they need to farm, I am also certain they would be surprised and delighted if any of these experiments produced enough energy to run their fertilizer plant for a week.  On the other hand, it is their neighbors who have built the infrastructure I shot that lovely post-harvest day in 2010—so who knows?

A Little Independent Energy Experiment on the Prairie

If you can fight your way through the dirt storms of Madelia, Minnesota, you may be able to find the future of renewable energy.  Madelia, is a small town with a big plan to produce fuel made from local materials for local markets.

By Maggie Koerth-Baker, April 06, 2012

In the middle of the Minnesota prairie sits Madelia, a town of a little more than 2300 people that is surrounded on all sides by miles upon miles of brown soil, tilled into neat rows. If you flew there in an airplane, Madelia would look like a button, sewn into the middle of a patchwork quilt—each farm divided into fields shaped like squares and circles, bordered by pale yellow gravel roads and by the narrow strips of bright green grass that grow alongside creeks and drainage ditches.

When the residents of a town such as Madelia think about the future of energy, the solutions they come up with are unsurprisingly centered on the land and what it can grow. In Madelia, however, those solutions look a little different from what you might expect. When Madelians imagine the future of energy, they don’t see prairie dotted with big ethanol refineries, where corn grown by hundreds of farmers is processed into fuel that will be sold all around the United States. Instead, they’re thinking about something much more local. Madelia is a small town with a big plan to produce fuel made from local materials for local markets. From the native grasses that easily grow in prairie soil to leftover beaks and pieces from a nearby chicken canning factory, anything that can grow within a 25-mile radius of town is fair game.

Why would a generally conservative town, populated by a lot of generally risk-averse farm families, want to stake a decent amount of time and money on the cutting edge of alternative energy?


I had traveled to Madelia to meet with Linda Meschke, the woman who had become the driving force behind the Madelia Model. [snip] I found out early on in my research that people tended to describe Meschke brain-first. “She really knows her stuff,” they’d tell me. “She’s a very, very smart woman.” They seemed to be a little in awe of her and a little intimidated, as if she were a force of nature—the opposite of a tornado, she blew through town leaving everything more orderly than they it had been before. From the secondhand accounts, I’d expected to meet a big, brassy Delta Burke of a lady. Instead, Meschke turned out to have the quiet, drawling demeanor of the good ol’ gal farmer she had been for 25 years. She was heavyset with short brown hair, and her tropical-print, button-up shirt was the loudest thing about her, but she really does know how to get the job done—whatever the job in question might be. A former county agriculture inspector, she got involved in rural water-quality issues in 1988. Within a decade, she’d completely revamped the way the counties around Madelia did the work of water protection. Pre-Meschke, the county water programs were all very separate from one another, even if they shared the same watershed. She launched a program that treated the Blue Earth River system—one of Minnesota’s dirtiest waterways—as a single unit, helping ideas and money cross county lines. The big-picture approach led to a 9 percent reduction in pollution by 2001.

The cadence of Meschke’s voice plodded along, but her hands were restless—fidgeting with themselves, drawing little circles on her notepad. She dealt in the small, deliberate details that got public works projects accomplished—the boring stuff for which bureaucracy was basically invented. Yet she talked in the language of a rabble-rouser, about tossing out the old ways and taking risks on new ideas. It was this part of Meschke’s personality that led her to see small-scale local energy as a solution, both to the water-quality problems she’d been fighting for decades and to the threat of soil erosion—which had created the dust storms that plagued my trip to Madelia. Meschke thought that local energy could solve both of those issues, because it could give farmers an opportunity to get paid for growing something other than corn.

Make no mistake, the Madelia Model is about biofuel, but it is not about ethanol. This part of the country needs less corn, not more, Meschke told me. Right now, corn and, to a lesser extent, soybeans are pretty much the only crops being grown. Corn takes up more than 45 percent of all available farmland in southern Minnesota, as well as in parts of Nebraska, Indiana, and Illinois—and pretty much every square inch of Iowa. In those same areas, depending on the county, soybeans chalk up anywhere from 15 percent to more than 45 percent of farmland.

From the outside, this system can seem a little illogical, but it’s simply specialization. It’s no different from a factory making only shoes instead of a closet full of different clothing products. It’s easier to become an expert on two crops, rather than on 20, and you can grow more for less of an up-front investment. Also, frankly, corn and soybeans pay off. There’s a big industrial demand for those plants that broccoli can’t match. When demand falls, there are also ample subsidies to guarantee that farmers make at least a certain price for their crops, with government money picking up the market’s slack. more


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