Encouraging the Use of Green Fuels and Power

Pennsylvania and the nation need new sources of clean, sustainable, environmentally friendly energy to limit reliance on fossil fuel, reduce pollution, and in some cases, create new markets for agricultural products.
Ed Johnstonbaugh, electric supply specialist, Allegheny Power, and board member West Penn Power Sustainable Energy Fund

Ed Johnstonbaugh, electric supply specialist, Allegheny Power, and board member West Penn Power Sustainable Energy Fund

"Penn State Cooperative Extension is an ideal partner as we try to work with the farming community to develop energy production from agricultural products, such as soybeans, corn, wheat and switchgrass, and other sustainable energy sources such as wind turbines, solar photo voltaic arrays and manure digesters. We are always looking for good farm-based projects."

Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences is leading the way in developing new fuels and technologies, demonstrating the economic and societal impact of "green energy" sources, and evaluating the environmental efficacy of alternative fuels.

The Payoff

Feeding machinery a soy-based diet

It takes about 100,000 gallons of fuel annually to run the 200 trucks, tractors, and pieces of agricultural equipment that make the 3,000 or so picturesque acres of Centre County farmland owned by Penn State productive. And all of that fuel is now biodiesel -- made with 20 percent soybean oil.

As the College of Agricultural Sciences demonstrates the advantages of "green fuels," the rest of the agricultural community may follow suit. And that's likely to bene.t the state's soybean growers, the environment, and the country's independence from foreign oil.

Because biodiesel is made in the United States, it keeps fuel-buying dollars at home, and it is environmentally friendly. When burned in engines, biodiesel produces fewer emissions. Studies indicate that adding vegetable oil to a fuel mixture extends engine life and makes engines run smoother. The price is expected to fall as more biodiesel is used in Pennsylvania and more distribution points are established. The biodiesel used in college equipment results in an 18 percent reduction in particulate emissions and a 13 percent reduction in carbon monoxide compared to regular diesel.

Crying over spilled hydraulic fluid. Hydraulic line breaks are the most common oil releases across Pennsylvania. If not attended to, these releases cause contamination of soil, ground water and surface water. Unfortunately, many equipment operators don't clean up hydraulic oil spills, leading to the introduction of pollutants into the environment.

The College of Agricultural Sciences has converted all of its farm equipment to biodegradable, vegetable oil-based hydraulic fluid to reduce environmental damage from spills and leaks and cut cleanup costs. Even the elevators across Penn State's campus now use biodegradable hydraulic fluid.

Biodegradable hydraulic fluid provides an expanded market for Pennsylvania soybeans; increases use of a renewable resource; reduces dependence on foreign oil; and its enhanced lubricating properties result in lower operating temperatures. But the most important factor is that its use prevents pollutants from getting into soil and groundwater. Also, materials collected in the cleanup of a spill of biodegradable hydraulic fluid don't have to be sent to a hazardous waste landfill, greatly reducing costs and boosting cleanup efforts.

Energy from burning waste plastics

Each year, U.S. agriculture generates thousands of tons of waste plastics. Most of it ends up in landfills. After a decade of experimentation, a team of researchers in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences developed a process to create fuel nuggets out of unrecycled waste plastics and burn them for energy without creating toxic emissions.

The goal is to alleviate the burgeoning problem of waste plastics in the environment, especially on the farm. The college wants to get energy from waste products, and plastics have energy that can be recovered. Properly done, plastic can supplement coal in boilers. The novelty of this approach to making nuggets from waste plastic is the low energy process developed that results in a product dubbed "Plastofuel."

Although researchers have concentrated much of their work on collecting, "nuggetizing,"and burning agricultural waste products such as silage wrap, mulch film, landscape pots and flats, and pesticide and fertilizer containers, they have included household and business waste plastics in their research. Our society does a good job recycling plastic numbers 1 and 2, but plastic categories 4 through 7-- such as lids, sheets of plastic, and wrappers-- traditionally are discarded at recycling centers. Those plastics generally are baled and sent to a landfill. But most are of value for Plastofuel because they generate heat and can be burned safely in very-high-temperature combustion.

Sustainable energy from wind

Sustainable energy from wind. Small-scale energy plants such as small wind turbines, photovoltaic arrays, and biomass projects can supply a large portion of the state's energy while securing local energy stability. Penn State Cooperative Extension has partnered with Westmoreland County to install and demonstrate a hybrid wind and solar energy generation system at the Donohoe Center complex in Greensburg, Pa.

This system offers a source of green power along with considerable cost savings to cooperative extension and the county, and it will be used to develop educational programs for farmers and rural residents throughout the region. The wind turbine and solar photovoltaic array is estimated to produce 21,014 kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. Over a 25-year period, the hybrid system should produce 525,350 kilowatt-hours of electricity. At the current average cost of a kilowatt-hour, the system should produce $45,705 in revenue and avoided costs.

Sustainable energy is becoming a new and reliable crop for farmers. The avoidance of pollution linked to acid rain and the greenhouse effect provide further positive impact on the agricultural industry in Pennsylvania. Besides economic benefits, every sustainable energy project avoids air, land, and water pollution. Avoided costs in remediation and health costs related to pollution reduction enhance the positive economic impacts of renewable energy.

West Penn Power Sustainable Energy Fund and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection are financially supporting selected Penn State green energy initiatives.

For more information, contact either Penn State Cooperative Extension at 814-863-3438 or the Office of Research and Graduate Education at 814-865-5410, or search for the topic on our website at