A smart solution: fuel from Midwest farms, not Mideast oil fields
The Midwest region of the United States has long been the source of agonizing weather events-floods, droughts, and crop failures; and of the eternal hope of the country, serving up grain and grit everyday. Global warming is already impacting the Midwest, bringing longer, more intense droughts in some areas while others get more precipitation than they can handle. But the Midwest offers hope for solving global warming through wind power, cellulosic ethanol and other home-grown solutions.
How the rain falls (or doesn't) on the Plains
Through the 20th century, the Midwest experienced its share of climate variability, from serious droughts to flooding rains. Unabated global warming will further contribute to these climate patterns, with average temperatures in the region projected to rise 7 to 11 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. Meanwhile, precipitation will likely increase in winter and spring, including more heavy downpours that cause severe flooding like that experienced in 2007. Heavy downpours already occur twice as often compared to just a century ago. Greater evaporation in summer may also lead to water deficits.
As any farmer can tell you, increased temperature and prolonged drought leads to substantial increases in evaporation, causing loss of soil moisture. When the intense rains finally do come, the soil cannot absorb all the water. Flash floods, along with massive soil and fertilizer runoff, occur, providing little salve for a parched farm.
What does this mean for Midwesterners and those dependent on the region for food and transportation? More intense precipitation is expected to result in more frequent flooding, which leads to infrastructure damage and negatively affects human health. Heat waves are expected to intensify, lengthen in duration, and increase in frequency. If emissions go unchecked, heat waves like the one that struck Chicago in 1995, which killed over 700 people, are expected to occur more than 80 times in final three decades of this century. Widespread drought, including severe drought in some regions of the Midwest, is also expected by the end of the century for business-as-usual emissions of greenhouse gases. Drought, along with flooding, heat waves, and insect infestation, will pose challenges for managing crop production and livestock.
National freight transportation systems, for which the Midwest plays a critical role, have proved susceptible to extreme climate fluctuations. A large fraction of the country's bulk commodities flow through Chicago-the nation's rail hub-while the Mississippi River serves a similar function for the country's river-going barges. While many factors contribute to flooding, more extreme precipitation events can cause destructive floods like the 1993 Midwest flood that affected millions of Americans. As flood waters poured over and through levees, inundating floodplains where key rail lines passed, surface transport was shut down for 6 weeks. River barge traffic suffered a similar fate leading to total costs from shipping and manufacturing delays upward of $2 billion.
With so much at stake, it's heartening to know that the Heartland can be one of the world's major suppliers of solutions to our global warming problem. With plentiful vegetation in the form of crops, crop waste, and native grasses, the Midwest can be both the breadbasket and the fuel pump to the world by converting plant matter into low-emissions cellulosic ethanol. This same abundance of crops and other plant material can also be used to generate electricty. And the winds that make those crops and grasses sway can also drive wind turbines to power our nation with clean, renewable energy. The bucolic landscape of the Midwest is full of energy and can provide homegrown fuel for our economy for decades to come.
Power from plants
Ethanol-a fuel made by converting plants into liquid fuel-is showing great promise to both cut America's dependence on foreign oil and reduce harmful global warming pollution. Best known as a corn-derived fuel, new processes to extract ethanol from a variety of plant materials will enable the production of fuel that doesn't cut into our food supply. Cellulosic ethanol is one of these next-generation biofuels that holds the promise of reducing global warming pollution by 90 percent or more, as compared to regular gasoline.
The Midwest has vast potential to create these new plant-based fuels. Much care is needed to ensure that land is managed sustainably so we don't create one problem-destroying our croplands and other land resources-while solving others. With a smart approach, the Midwest can be the driving force behind new homegrown renewable fuels, with the potential to reap huge economic and environmental benefits for America and the world.
The plants that grow in America's heartland are not the only clean energy resources in the region. The wind that blows across America's middle can drive advanced wind turbines and power vast amounts of the United States' power needs.
Even though Chicago, the Midwest's largest city, is called the Windy City, the winds whipping around the city and across the vast plains of America have largely gone untapped. With the largest area of continuous available wind, the Midwest has the capacity to produce gigawatts of clean, renewable energy from wind-the equivalent of about half of the total electrical capacity in the United States today. Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri all have the potential to contribute over 100,000 MW of wind energy.
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