The real cost for a gallon of fuel goes well beyond the price displayed at the pump. The total you pay to fill your tank doesn’t include the costs of repairing damage to air and water quality. Similarly, it doesn’t include the human and ecological costs of climate change from greenhouse gas emissions.
And that’s, as they say, just the tip of the iceberg.
Jason Hill, McKnight Land-Grant professor, evaluates the impacts of energy and agriculture over their full life cycle. For example, he studies the life cycle of ethanol from the cultivation of the corn, to the distillation of the fuel, to when it is burned in engines.
More and more, global policy relies on academic research to inform the future of energy and agriculture regulation. In response, Hill is comparing methods for meeting the energy and food demands of an increasingly affluent population.
Where it’s at
Hill was groomed for maroon and gold from his early years. He remembers visiting the field plots on the St. Paul campus as a child with his father, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. Raised by scientists, Hill eventually studied genetics and evolutionary biology, and learned about interactions among biological systems.
One day, he came across a paper co-authored by applied economics professor Stephen Polasky on how pollinators provide a valuable economic service to coffee plantations. Hill reached out to Polasky, who invited him to join a team at the university that was studying corn ethanol and other biofuels.
Then, as today, there was a tremendous amount of interest in renewable energy technology, and Hill knew the University of Minnesota was the place to contribute to it.
“What I do touches on many different fields, and there are already so many connections here to draw upon,” he says. “The university really is the place to be doing this type of work.”
Informing big choices
Hill’s current research focuses on evaluating the impact of a growing global demand for bioenergy. His group is examining the costs and benefits stemming from different biofuel strategies, including the roadblocks associated with developing new technologies and scaling them up to industrial production.
“There are going to be impacts along the whole supply chain and worldwide economy, depending on the choices we make for the future of energy.”
The verdict is still out on what will fuel the world of tomorrow. But Hill’s team can assert that it’s not enough to simply decide on a biofuel or another energy source — a sustainable future will rely on producing it responsibly, and asking the right questions along the way.
When asked about the greatest challenges policy makers will face in the struggle to meet energy and agricultural demands over the next several decades, Hill points to the following issues:
Investing in transportation: Researchers are examining the impact of energy on transportation, and informing policy makers on how to power electric cars. Should we convert biomass to liquid fuels and burn it? Or burn biomass to produce electricity to charge electric cars? Or should we divert funds to redesign our transportation system more broadly?
Settling the organic food debate: Knowledge gleaned from bioenergy research is raising questions about the differences between organic and conventional agriculture in terms of their local and global impact. Nutritional debates aside, Hill and his team are primarily concerned with what approach is best for the planet.