Wisconsin Governor Wants to Cut $8 Million from Bioenergy Research

- by Thomas Content and Lee Bergquist, February 28, 2015, Journal Sentinel

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"405","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","style":"width: 300px; height: 189px; margin: 3px 10px; float: left;","title":"Photo: Journal Sentinel"}}]]In an about-face from his first term, Gov. Scott Walker wants to eliminate funding for a University of Wisconsin-Madison renewable energy research center that has played a key role in helping land one of its biggest government grants ever.

In his budget, Walker is proposing to eliminate $8.1 million over two years — a total of 35 positions — from a bioenergy program.

The reductions are separate from his proposal to cut $300 million from the University of Wisconsin System over the next two years.

The research program, founded in 2009, is charged with developing technologies to convert wood chips, corn stalks and native grasses to homegrown sources of power.

The program also funds research in other energy disciplines, including power generation and energy efficiency. Last year, Johnson Controls, the state's largest company, opened an energy storage research lab on the UW campus.

Along with wind, solar and hydroelectric power, bioenergy is seen as a long-term option to reduce the state's reliance on coal, oil and natural gas.

Supporters view bioenergy as Wisconsin's most promising source of renewable power, since materials can be burned continuously, making them more reliable than wind and solar.

UW officials say that Walker's proposal to end funding for the bioenergy program would cripple broader energy-development research that is receiving $25 million annually from the federal Department of Energy.

"I can't honestly say how we would replace it at this point," said Michael Corradini, director of the Wisconsin Energy Institute at UW-Madison,which derives 90% of its funding from the bioenergy program.

Federal research center

In 2007, Wisconsin landed the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center — the first federal research center the state had attracted in decades. The center received an initial five-year, $125 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Itwas part of a $375 million package by the administration of President George W. Bush to fund energy projects at UW and two other research powerhouses — Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

UW's funding was renewed for another five years in 2013.

Walker's proposal "puts us in a difficult situation," Corradini said, because of commitments the state made to help land the federal research center.

"Any discontinuing of the matching funds would place the Board of Regents in noncompliance with the federal government," Corradini said.

Alan Perlstein, executive director of the Milwaukee-based Midwest Energy Research Consortium, said UW energy research programs provide key technical expertise to help companies that develop new products.

As they review the budget, lawmakers should recognize that investing in energy research leads to innovations that create jobs for Wisconsin companies, he said.

To support UW's application for the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle committed $104 million.

That included $50 million in state funds in 2009 for construction of a $100 million energy research headquarters on the UW campus, according to Legislative Fiscal Bureau documents. Another $50 million in gifts and grants helped fund construction of the building, which opened in 2013.

In addition, Doyle provided $4 million to hire new faculty — money Walker is proposing to eliminate.

In a statement, Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said the governor's proposal is part of his plan to provide block grants to the UW System and give administrators new authority that would free them from many regulations and rules.

The UW System "has the ability to fund this program out of their block grant if they decide it is a priority," she said.

'Skin in the game'

Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, said he isn't in a position to say whether the loss of money will kill future federal funding for bioenergy.

"It is common practice that federal agencies handing out grants expect a state or private match," Still said. "They are looking for skin in the game."

In recent months, auditors from the Department of Energy asked for assurances that the state was still providing financial support for the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, Corradini said.

The Energy Department declined to comment on how the state budget cuts would affect future funding for the federal research center.

Wisconsin has few federal research centers, Still said. They include the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory and National Wildlife Health Laboratory, both in Madison. By comparison, Colorado has more than 30, according to Still.

100th patent

Last week, UW announced that the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center had filed its 100th patent application since 2007.

In one patent, biochemist John Ralph teamed with researchers from Michigan State University and the University of British Columbia to engineer wood in poplar trees to make them easier to degrade and be converted into a source of fuel.

In another case, UW research developed a process to break down plant sugars to produce chemicals that come from biological and not petroleum sources.

St. Louis-based GluCan Biorenewables, a start-up, is looking to apply that technology. It is raising money to construct a pilot plant at a northern Wisconsin paper mill to produce a chemical for papermaking.

GluCan received research funding, lab space and equipment from the bioenergy program, according to chief executive Vicki Gonzalez.

"For a start-up company like ours, the institute has a lot of equipment that we just can't afford," she said.