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Project to develop renewable energy source evaluation tools

Tom Marrero, a chemical engineering professor, and Tom Johnson, the Frank Miller professor in agricultural and applied economics and professor in the Harry S. Truman School of Public Affairs, have been funded by the state’s Department of Natural Resources to develop a feasibility evaluation of renewable energy projects based on economics, environment, energy and sustainability.

When it comes to moving this country’s energy consumption toward renewable resources “the lights are on.” But the “nobody’s home” punch line of the old cliché just as easily refers to the lack of available tools to help businesses, organizations and individuals make informed decisions about the viability and the political and economic impact of potential choices: solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, biofuels and landfill gas.

University of Missouri Professors Tom Marrero and Tom Johnson have received a $50,000 “Energize Missouri” grant from the state’s Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) to help build a toolkit to do just that. The project is one of 17 renewable energy subgrants awarded in Missouri with funding from by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act through the U.S. Department of Energy’s State Energy Program.

Over the next year, Marrero, a chemical engineering professor, and Johnson, the Frank Miller professor in agricultural and applied economics and professor in the Harry S Truman School of Public Affairs, will develop a protocol that will allow feasibility evaluation of renewable energy projects based on economics, environment, energy and sustainability.

“If policies allow alternative fuels such as solar or wind or biopower, the basis for the selection of a fuel system that could produce sustainable energy would require selection criteria,” said Marrero. “That criteria would be necessarily quantitative and allow selection from comparison of not only profit and environmental impact, but also societal impact.”

“DNR has an energy center with responsibility to increase efficiency and decrease consumption,” said Johnson. “We’ll add some high quality tools for them to use.”

One of the things that the pair will build their research around is a “biopower calculator” developed by Johnson for the National Rural Electric Co-op Association. Johnson’s calculator measures the advantages and consequences of replacement of coal with biomass in coal burning plants, something the MU power plant has experimented with. The calculator also was used to measure the viability of landfill gas, or methane. “We’ll extend it to all other areas of energy that we can,” Johnson said.

In Missouri, most of the cost of fuels goes out of state, Marrero said. “Proper assessment would reduce imports of conventional fuels and could also provide jobs within the state.”

With great interest in the quality of life in rural areas, Johnson is particularly interested in the feasibility of sustainable energy for small-scale operations, such as family farms where something like methane from animal waste might be a potential source of both electricity and heat. “Environmental and economic benefits will be better when you can spread it around,” he said. “The first place we should look [for potential energy sources] is in our waste streams. It solves two problems in one,” he said.

Marrero said that model’s evaluation criteria would include present value, potential environmental impact, system life cycle assessment, a sustainability index and choice awareness. “Most of the methods or algorithms we are using are well-known, however the Choice Awareness algorithm comes from Denmark,” he said, noting that since the OPEC oil crisis in 1973, the country has significantly increased conservation and has made a dramatic switch to renewable fuels.

“It will provide DNR an objective means to evaluate proposed renewable resources,” Marrero said.