Penn State Extension: Renewable and Alternative Energy Programs

As one of the nation’s first land-grant colleges and universities, Penn State has a special mission in addition to research and classroom teaching. That mission is extension.
Penn State Extension: Renewable and Alternative Energy Programs - Articles
Penn State Extension: Renewable and Alternative Energy Programs

About Penn State Extension

As one of the nation’s first land-grant colleges and universities, Penn State has a special mission in addition to research and classroom teaching. That mission is extension.

In every Pennsylvania community, Penn State Extension provides informal education with direct relevance to people’s daily lives. We share University-based research and expertise to help people, communities, businesses, and governments solve their problems and reach their potential. In a word, extension education helps Pennsylvanians grow.

Energy is a critical issue for Pennsylvanians. It’s time to reduce our reliance on foreign oil and increase our energy security. We need clean, efficient, affordable, and renewable fuels that keep energy dollars working to support our own economy. A sustainable energy future will require:

  • conservation
  • renewable energy and energy efficiency
  • alternative fuels and fuel efficiency
  • innovation

Renewable and Alternative Energy programming is a Penn State Extension priority. Our faculty and educators evaluate energy alternatives, demonstrate the impact of alternative energy sources, and develop strategies for efficient energy use.

Our educational programs provide science-based guidance and information to help local youth, citizens, farmers, foresters, businesses, and policymakers understand the complex issues related to alternative energy development and improved energy efficiency.

By linking to other Penn State researchers and building partnerships with energy project developers, government agencies, organizations, and communities, we are helping Pennsylvania move toward a future with sustainable communities and secure, affordable energy supplies.

Our Web Site Teaches Energy Efficiency and Savings

Penn State Extension provides tools and information to help consumers make educated decisions about energy issues, alternatives, and efficiency. For example you will find these tools:

  • Energy Cost Calculator— a tool for making “apples-to-apples” comparisons of various forms of energy on the basis of dollars per million BTUs.
  • Energy Selector—a user-friendly aid for making decisions by estimating the best economic choice based on the heating values from any two energy sources.
  • Energy Use Program—a resource that addresses emerging issues involving utility company pricing and policies (for example, deregulation of electricity generation) and information that can help consumers understand the issues and cope with policy impacts; strategies for seeking financial assistance to pay energy bills are also included.
  • Energy Efficiency Program—a program that teaches extension strategies and tactics to improve energy efficiency in the home and on the farm—from using Energy Star® products and maintaining vehicles for peak performance to converting cropping systems to reduce tillage.

Research Findings Encourage Conversion to Green Energy

Biofuels, such as biodiesel and ethanol, are solid, liquid, or gas fuels derived from biomass—organic material made from plants or animals or their by-products. These fuels offer the potential to:

  • Improve environmental quality
  • Reduce our dependence on foreign oil
  • Boost rural economies by providing value-added markets for agricultural products such as soybeans

However, new fuels such as biodiesel require careful study of the related economic, safety, and environmental factors before they can be promoted for widespread use.

Biofuel and biolubricant studies

Penn State researchers, in collaboration with equipment manufacturers and service providers, conduct performance-based tests to determine the impact of biodiesel on tractor engine performance, maintenance, reliability, and warranties. Operating conditions for the fuel and factors associated with its manufacture, storage, and distribution are also studied. After extensive use of B100 diesel (fuel made from soybean oil with no petroleum-based component) in tractors, the use of straight biofuel appeared comparable in every test category to that of machines running on petroleum-based diesel fuel.

Biolubricants (vegetable oil-based lubricants or biodegradeable lubricants) also offer effective alternatives to conventional petroleum-based lubricants, according to Penn State performance-based demonstrations. Where spills or leaks of petroleum-based products can result in expensive clean-up costs and environmental damage, research data indicated biobased lubricants reduce or eliminate clean-up costs and pose no environmental hazard.

Extension programs around the state share demonstration results with manufacturers and users of agricultural equipment to increase adoption of these environmentally friendly alternatives.

Considerations for production

Both large- and small-scale production of bio-based fuels is complex, and involves the use of strong bases and alcohols, such as methanol. Disposal of these and other co-products requires careful attention to avoid causing health or environmental problems. Production also requires close quality monitoring to avoid producing substandard fuel and engine performance issues. Government policies on biodiesel production and use are still under development and not yet well understood by the industry.

By working with key partners in industry, government agencies, and other institutions, Penn State Extension has developed some key considerations for small-scale biodiesel producers to consider before developing a production facility.

Extension Prepares Youth to Participate in our Country's Energy Future

Today’s youth will likely experience dramatic changes in energy consumption during their lifetime. Education that Penn State Extension has developed for youth teaches the basic concepts of energy in our society and provides objective information about conventional and emerging energy sources.

4-H Energy Education

The 4-H Science of Energy program teaches youth basic and advanced energy concepts and encourages interactive learning with hands-on energy experiments.

Penn State Extension Partnerships

In cooperation with programs such as the National Energy Education and Development project (NEED), Penn State Extension delivers multi-faceted energy education to provide students with a realistic understanding of the scientific, economic, and environmental impacts of both renewable and nonrenewable energies.

Classroom Education

The current focus on renewable energy provides an excellent opportunity to engage high school students in an exciting emerging field, to develop their interests in a new industry, and to establish links to other important subjects like chemistry and physics. Penn State Extension is working with Vo-Ag teachers and Future Farmers of America (FFA) to better integrate renewable energy topics into their curricula.

Demonstrations Reveal the Potential in Alternative Cropping Systems

Demands for sustainable, renewable energy sources will likely require the development of some new cropping systems to meet our needs for food, animal feed and fiber, and also fuel. Each crop will require a careful assessment to determine its potential in the Commonwealth.

Penn State Extension specialists and educators are actively involved in assessing and demonstrating new alternative crops for biofuels, including canola, barley, camelina, switchgrass, miscanthus, and sugar and fodder beets. These demonstrations are used to introduce the crops to producers and agronomists and help them understand the production potential, management issues, and economics of each.

Alternative crops can also produce value-added co-products (the dry matter recovered after processing) that can provide supplementary feed for animal agriculture in Pennsylvania.

Understanding the potential of these co-products is one of the essential components of extension’s alternative crop assessment and demonstration program.

Penn State research and demonstration projects offer opportunities for policymakers and potential investors to compile beneficial production data to use in assessing the potential of alternative crops in our region. Project data also provides these benefits:

  • a foundation for extension specialists and educators to discuss the potential for widespread cultivation of these crops
  • an opportunity to help develop more sustainable methods of feedstock production using cover crops, no-tillage production methods, and reduced fertilizer and pesticide inputs that can improve soil quality and reduce runoff of fertilizers and pesticides

Working with researchers at Penn State and other organizations such as USDA-ARS, extension specialists help to address the complex issues of carbon balance, net energy, and lifecycle analyses for various cropping systems. The results are shared with crop producers and their advisors to enable them to make informed end effective decisions that benefit the food and feed production industries in the Commonwealth.

Extension Has the Facts on Wind, Solar and Biomass Energy

Penn State Extension provides farmers and rural residents in Pennsylvania with valuable experience data from a hybrid system installed at the Westmoreland County Extension Office that utilizes wind and solar energy. The Rural Sustainable Energy Project, as it is called, documents construction data, local ordinances, liabilities, maintenance, and cost savings associated with small-scale wind and solar
power for electricity generation.

Efficiently combined heat and power

Small-scale biomass combined heat and power systems convert any kind of biomass energy (such as agricultural, forest, or organic waste) into heat and steam or gas that can be used to produce electricity. This type of system can use locally grown biomass or organic waste to generate power and heat for schools, industrial facilities, or communities. It offers an effective use of renewable energy and a means to reduce environmental pollution from organic matter.

Extension specialists and educators have partnered with institutions and other organizations to explore and develop the potential of these systems around the state. Research is focused on feedstock production and accumulation, system design, and system assessment.

Waste-To-Energy Solutions Abound

Some of the most promising resources for renewable energy reside in waste from animals, crops, wood, plastics, and food. Systems called methane digesters use a process called anaerobic digestion to convert organic waste streams into biogas. The biogas is then combusted to produce usable power to generate electricity.

Penn State Extension is working to develop waste streams into clean renewable energy supplies that can reduce waste disposal costs and benefit the environment. Projects that demonstrate the potential of digester systems include:

  • Food Waste—Penn State Extension helped a Mercer County business to conceptualize, design, and fund a digester system for a local cheese plant. Annually, the project has saved 65,000 gallons of fuel, produced 2 million kWh of electricity, and dramatically reduced waste disposal costs.
  • Penn State researchers are working to perfect a method for disposing of poultry litter that could save energy costs to heat poultry houses and reduce water pollution. Poultry litter—wood shavings and manure—is disposed of by applying it to fields as fertilizer. When excess nutrients from the fertilizer enter ground or surface waters they become pollutants. Burning the litter produces energy that can save growers thousands of dollars for propane to keep baby birds warm and the phosphorous-rich ash that is left after incineration can be used as a feed for birds or other animals.
  • Plastic Waste—Each year tons of waste plastics from agriculture (mulch films, silage wraps, nursery pots and flats, and irrigation tubing) are burned, buried, or sent to landfills. Penn State’s plastofuel project team developed an effective method to convert waste plastics to fuel nuggets that can be burned to heat greenhouses and other structures. The process conserves landfill space, saves disposal costs, produces energy, and generates revenue for agricultural producers.

These projects often require coordination of federal, state and local funding partners, and, increasingly, development of credits for renewable energy, carbon, and nutrients that contribute to project funding. Extension staff can help participants understand the process and develop partnerships to expedite projects.

Community Education Promotes Successful Projects

Alternative energy engagement

Developmental projects for alternative energy can generate jobs and economic growth as well as address existing environmental issues in communities. Often, these projects require community approval or involvement to succeed.

Extension can help in this important area. Our community development specialists and educators teach area residents and project developers how to effectively engage each other and address potential impacts—both positive and negative—to promote the economic, environmental, and social well-being of the community.

Extension Explores Woody Biomass Utilization

Sustainable woody biomass production and harvesting

Pennsylvania’s forests and land resources offer considerable potential for converting woody biomass to energy; however, many factors affect how much and how effectively this resource can be utilized.

Economic production of low-use wood can increase land values and enhance forest landowners’ revenues. But given long timber-growing periods, making money from Penn’s Woods is difficult. Harvesting smaller-diameter, faster-growing species could provide continuous revenue streams for landowners. Those who gain more income from their land are less likely to convert it to development uses.

Biomass harvesting is a key opportunity for improving timber stands. Thinning the stands allows space for natural regeneration of more valuable trees. Land ownership issues and the economic returns of harvesting are critical considerations.

Specialists and educators in Penn State’s Forest Resources Extension, in conjunction with forest landowners and other partners such as The Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry and the USDA Forest Service, are developing programs to address sustainability issues.

Woody biomass utilization systems

Current technology exists to make a wide variety of products from woody biomass, including densified fuels such as wood pellets and firelogs, combustion fuels for biomass power plants, ethanol, and organic chemicals. Woody biomass sources include small-diameter trees, forest residue, waste from timberland clearings, and construction and demolition.