Mad Cow Concern Prompts Renewable Energy Plan

Clean, renewable energy: Solar, Wind, Geothermal, Hydropower, Biofuels, and Cattle. Cattle? According to the goals of a recent United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) program, the destruction of cattle “parts” and even whole cows could become the next frontier in renewable energy projects.

Washington, DC – June 11, 2004 [SolarAccess.com] Using loan guarantees totaling US$50 million, the USDA hopes to spur a market response to the government’s efforts toward prevention and preparedness of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), otherwise known as “Mad Cow Disease.” “This program will provide guaranteed loans for rural small businesses to develop the means to effectively destroy these specified risk materials from cattle while providing a bio-based source of energy,” Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman said in a recent statement. Included among these “parts,” or specified risk materials, are cattle brains, skulls, eyes, spinal columns and small intestines. In January, the USDA deemed these parts to pose a risk of transmission of BSE and the agency banned them from the food supply. BSE is a brain-wasting disease, a slowly progressive, degenerative, fatal disease affecting the central nervous system of adult cattle. If passed on to humans, BSE has been linked to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), a condition that causes paralysis and death. While the USDA is clearly interested in a market solution to the destruction of the risk materials — normally produced as by-products of a robust, healthy beef industry — the plan also appears to seek a solution to another scenario altogether. The large-scale destruction of diseased cattle. Should a BSE epidemic break out into the U.S. food supply, thousands if not millions of cattle could face destruction. After suffering a epidemic-proportion breakout of BSE in the ’90s, Britain was forced to destroy approximately 3.7 million animals in order to cleanse the food chain of the disease. To date in the United States, only one cow, in December 2003, has been found to be infected with BSE. After lengthy investigation, none others were found, however, this one infected cow sent out wide ripples of market trepidation, leading to U.S. beef order cancellations and bans from countries around the world. Those ripples likely hit the USDA with the force of small tidal wave, leading to Secretary Veneman’s January commitment against letting the specified risk materials and non-ambulatory, or “downer” cattle that cannot walk on their own, into the U.S. food supply. Enter, the renewable energy loan guarantee program. The USDA’s loan guarantees would be administered under the agency’s Rural Business-Cooperative Service (RBS) under Title 9006 of the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002. According to the RBS Notice of Funds Availability (NOFA), listed in the National Register, the RBS expects, “projects to be constructed that will produce energy through the destruction of cattle,” and the program would provide guaranteed loans for “developing renewable energy systems from the use of diseased livestock as a process raw material for the energy source.” The USDA isn’t wasting any time on implementing the program either, having qualified the program as an “Emergency Pilot Program.” The collection of information requirements contained in the NOFA received temporary emergency clearance by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Clearly the USDA is concerned about BSE and wants an effective market solution to dispose of everything from specified risk materials all the way to the nauseating scenario of mass destruction of whole herds of infected cattle. So the big question for the renewable energy community is whether this is an appropriate program to be lumped under the renewable energy umbrella. Is it deserving of being called renewable energy? Steve Clemmer, Research Director, Clean Energy Programs, for the Union of Concerned Scientists doesn’t think so. “…this is disingenuous.” Clemmer said. “It would not meet our definition of renewable energy. My guess is that most of the environmental community would agree.” Clemmer said the farm bill clean energy title funding is limited and the demand for the popular program is high, evident from the projects that were funded under the first round. “There are many worthwhile farmer-owned wind and bioenergy projects that will submit proposals for the next round of funding,” Clemmer said. “We believe that funding for the program should be increased and not redirected toward questionable projects, like burning cows for energy.” Charles Kubert, an Environmental Business Specialist with the Environmental Law & Policy Center sees it less as a way to foist the mass incineration of cattle off as a renewable energy project, but more so a way to use the funding authority and rulemaking for Section 9006 to “sneak in a program that would benefit only a couple of businesses.” Since the pilot program offers loan guarantees and not grants, Kubert said it would not directly take money away from other renewable energy projects, but that it “could in future years.” Whether the projects should even qualify as renewable energy projects, is another question altogether. “While cows are certainly a renewable resource, they are certainly not a source of energy,” Kubert said. “I have no idea whether combusting cows or cow parts would be net energy positive but agree that it is unlikely.” Maybe unlikely, but not impossible said Scott Sklar, President of the Stella Group, a marketing and policy firm for distributed generation and former Executive Director of both the Solar Energy Industries Association and the National BioEnergy Industries Association thinks it’s possible. “Yes, it likely is renewable as are manure-to-biogas and poultry litter biomass power plants now sold commercially,” Sklar said. The USDA is attempting to get two products from one process, said Sklar, the clean burns and high temperature of renewable energy biomass generation is hot and clean enough to insure the toxins are destroyed, no infected emissions enter the atmosphere, and a portion of the energy can be harnessed in the end. If the output of energy was comparable or greater than that which was put into it, the chosen process would likely be lumped under the renewable energy umbrella as a “waste to energy” project. Most waste-to-energy projects have thus far gained far less public acceptance than more palatable technologies like solar and wind – and this USDA plan is not likely to reverse the trend. “I’ve found that society’s task of dealing with waste is a huge problem, one that is generally left to people who are willing to do it (and make money doing so) and politicians who have to deal with it,” said Michael T. Eckhart, President of the American Council On Renewable Energy (ACORE). “It has to be done. If somebody wants to call the incineration of cows renewable energy, bless them. I won’t make a big deal about it. I won’t endorse them, but I won’t condemn them either.”
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