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Students learn of Iowa energy capabilities

By Staff | Apr 8, 2014

IOWA SECRETARY OF AGRICULTURE Bill Northey visited with high school students at Couser Cattle Co., near Nevada during the second annual Iowa High School Renewable Energy Conference.

NEVADA – More than 200 students -including some from urban schools – attended the second annual Iowa High School Renewable Energy Conference at Nevada High School on March 26.

Kevin Cooper, ag-ed instructor and FFA advisor for Nevada High School, said that while he was pleased with the attendance of 239 students from 18 different schools, what he was particularly excited that there were students in attendance from Ankeny and every high school in Des Moines.

Giving those urban students a chance to see what is going on in rural Iowa was a great opportunity, Cooper said.

“We had a chance to sensitize and inform those students of the greater Des Moines area what we are doing out here,” he said.

The conference, which also included a college fair, was organized by a committee of Nevada high school students, said Cooper.

CAMERON YOUNG, of Des Moines, works on the cooking process of corn meal, part of the ethanol manufacturing process.

“The Nevada students on the committee took ownership of the conference this year, they took charge of getting colleges here and the speakers lined up,” he said

Cooper said Nevada is a perfect place to hold a conference on renewable energy with so many companies, such as Lincolnway Energy, an ethanol plant; BECON Facility, where products are developed from Iowa’s biomass resources; and the soon-to-be-online DuPont Cellulosic Ethanol plant, all in close proximity.

Keynote speaker for the day was Gary Haer, vice president, sales and marketing for the Renewable Energy Group Inc., who gave an overview of the biodiesel industry.

“Biodiesel is a renewable, clean-burning diesel replacement made from a diverse mix of feedstocks,” said Haer. “As far as the future of feedstocks for use in biodiesel, the future and opportunity is enormous – such as using algae. This is a very exciting time in the biodiesel industry.”

More than one billion gallons of biodiesel was produced last year, he said.

“This is a huge industry,” he said. “It supports 50,000 jobs and is provides $2.7 billion in U.S. household income.”

He added that there are 12 biodiesel plants in Iowa with a capacity of producing 317 million gallons a year. In 2013, 230 million gallons were produced in Iowa.

“Biodiesel is a very important industry in Iowa,” he said.

Haer said REG generates value in many ways such as environmental work, providing direct jobs and food security.

“We are a durable, reliable and profitable company and utilize all of the available feedstocks we can get and look at the opportunity to utilize the future feedstocks,” he said.

With REG providing 200 jobs in our state, he said there are “unique and exciting opportunities” in the industry.

Students had the opportunity to learn about Iowa Lakes Community College’s wind turbine technology program from professor Dan Lutat.

Lutat said he was especially pleased to see young women at the conference and encouraged them to pursue an education and career in not only the wind turbine technology profession, but to look at all technical-related careers.

“Women have a different way of trouble shooting and problem solving than their male counterparts, and we welcome more women in the industry. They have the mind we desperately need,” said Lutat. “I encourage young ladies to look at technical fields- especially energy- the opportunities for you are amazing, we don’t have enough of your minds out there.”

Iowa Lakes Community College, he said, is first of the three colleges in the nation to earn the American Wind Energy Association’s seal of approval 2011.

Lutat said the college has worked with the AWEA to develop its program for technicians.

“There are 300 new jobs in wind energy every week that our students have the opportunity to apply for,” said Lutat.

While encouraging the high school students to look in to Iowa Lakes’ wind turbine program,

Students attending the conference also had the chance to learn about another form of energy: solar.

“Solar energy is taking the United States and the world by storm,” said Gary Lass, president of Solar FX, of Ames. “Germany has more photovoltaic arrays than any other country on the planet, and the United States is starting to grow to more solar.

“Coal is out, wind has seemed to have hit a plateau and while nuclear power works, it is expensive,” said Lass. “Ames has 4.4 sun hours on average a day, so it is easy to calculate how much energy you can make in a day.”

PV arrays, otherwise known as solar panels, are being used more to create energy, Lass said. Electricity generation from coal has dropped by almost 25 percent, while solar energy has grown by 607 percent throughout industry uses, Lass said – and that jump doesn’t include residential uses.

Lass said his company is able to install PV arrays on houses, barns, gas station canopies or parking lot canopies for electric cars to use to charge.

Installation of the PV arrays, he said, is simple and they offer a warranty with an expected life of up to 40 years with an expected 7-year return on your investment.

“That’s like 30 years of free electricity,” he said.

Along with the opportunity for using solar energy, Lass said, comes more job opportunities.

Opportunities for working in the solar energy industry, Lass said range from laboratory work to manufacturing, sales installation and warehouse and shipping work.

Eric Olson, an instructor at the Bioprocessing Training Center at Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, had the chance to educate the high school students on the “ABC’s of Biofuels Ethanol.”

Students not only learned the ethanol-making process, but they got some hands-on experience, using corn meal.

First, the students dissected a kernel of corn learning about all of the parts inside the kernel before they were given a cup of corn meal.

With their cup of corn meal, the students added boiling water, stirring to make a paste before they added the amylase enzyme. This enzyme, Olson said helps to speed up the chemical reaction and the particular step is called the “liquidification” where the breaking down of the starch happens and now turns their paste into a “mash”, which is an actual technical term used in the ethanol making process.

In order for the students to reenact the “fermentation process” they added glucoamylase.

Olson further explained the education students receive in the bioprocessing program at Indian Hills.

“Students will understand bioprocessing and will be able to work at any component of a bioprocessing plant,” he said.

Some students toured the Couser Cattle Co., founded by Bill and Nancy Couser. She and son, Tim, feed more than 5,000 head of cattle per year.

Nancy and Tim Couser grow seed corn in addition to their cash grain operation of crops and stover – using the stover for feed and for the new cellulosic ethanol plant being built just a few miles away.

The Cousers explained their operation and gave an overview of their operation.

“We strive to be good stewards of the environment and take good care of the land,” said Nancy Couser.

Special guest at the farm was Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey.

Northey had just returned from Washington, D.C., for the unveiling of the Norman Borlaug statue. He talked about Borlaug, considered the father of the green revolution, and the legacy he left.

He encouraged the students to learn more about Borlaug.

“There is lots of great stuff happening in Iowa agriculture,” said Northey.

While encouraging the students to further their education in agriculture, Northey said there are lots of ways to find something they might be interested in pursuing in the renewable energy field.

DuPont’s cellulosic ethanol plant, which is being constructed, will need corn stover from farmers in a 30-mile radius of Nevada.

The DuPont transportation site is signing up farmers and getting the equipment prepared for a large harvest predicted at 150,000 acres for the fall .

Those acres, Dan Weber, feedstock operations manager said, will grow up to 200,000 acres when the ethanol plant is in full operation.

The employees at the DuPont transportation site took turns talking to the students, explaining their educational backgrounds and where they had been before taking the jobs at DuPont.

Students also learned the process of harvesting, storing and using the corn stover during their off-campus visit to the site.

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