Hemp for Fuel: An Blunt Argument for a New Cash Crop

This might be hard for some people to believe, but I used to be able to dunk a basketball.  Even though it turned out to be something I could do pretty easily, I’ll never forget the first time.  It really was a thrilling feeling.  It was fun.  And I began to have visions of basketball greatness.  Game winning slams.  High fives and chest bumps.  And, of course, cheerleaders.  And soon all I wanted to do was dunk.  I felt I was working on a living dream.  Even if I wasn’t the coolest guy in my school, at least I’d be the one with the serious hops.  It was going to be great.

Like all great sagas, it turned out I wasn’t alone in my basketball journey.  The neighborhood sports nerd, who I will call “Benny,” was working on his own hoop dream.  At about 5 ‘5” and 250 pounds, Benny wasn’t doing any skywalking.  What he did have going for him was seemingly unlimited range on a dead eye “hop shot.”  We didn’t have three pointers in those days, but that didn’t keep Benny from launching on them from 35 or 40 feet.  And more often than not, it was nothing but net.  If you needed a long shot, Benny was money.

So together we toiled as summer turned to fall.  Benny throwing them up and me throwing them down.  We were the kings of driveway basketball.  Our spire if influence may have been narrow in radius, but it was certainly high.  And so was our confidence heading into tryouts for the varsity basketball team.

It’s fair to say that Benny and I hit the ground running when tryouts began.  Individual drills really gave us a chance to show off a bit.  Benny was more accurate than ever with the tight rims and firm footing of the school gym.  And I stuffed my first lay-up and decided to try and dunk every one after that.  Even the misses created a buzz amongst the other guys in the lay-up line, so I kept trying, no matter how successful the result.

But then reality kicked in.  “de Heus!!!  I said left hand!”

The coach ripped into me when I used the left handed lay-up drill as an opportunity to try a bit of a trick dunk.  He didn’t look happy, so I settled down a bit.  But really, it didn’t get better from there.

The problem really came to a head when we started to scrimmage.  First of all, there was defense.  And they set screens.  And boxed out.  And pulled off “give and go” plays that left Benny’s head spinning and me “jumping around like a decapitated grasshopper,” if I remember the coach’s words correctly.

Clearly you know where this is parable is headed.  Neither of us made the team.  When the coach sat down to talk to us, he said it was a pretty simple decision.

“I know the dunking if fun, Matt.  In fact, I think you are kind of cool. But you really don’t contribute much when the game gets going.  You get confused and just start hopping around.  Jumping high is great, but it isn’t basketball.  You’re just not that productive when you are on the court.”

“And, Benny, I might kick myself some time this season when really I need a long shot, but it’s the same story as Matt.  You really only have the one skill.  In fact, that’s the whole issue in the decisions on both of you.  If I was producing a highlight film, you guys might be useful.  But, you are missing the whole point of the game.  The fundamentals – like defense and passing and team play.  I hate to say it, but you guys are all paint and no canvas.  It might be plain and uninteresting, but you don’t get the luxury of fancy dunks and long shots unless you have executed the fundamental elements of the game.  Don’t feel alone; most fans miss this point, too.”

By now you are probably wondering what this cathartic tale of high school failure has to do with the headline of alternative energy and hemp.  Well, the correlations are pretty easy.

Proponents of hemp have, to date, focused on a couple of pretty populist wedges in the current laws covering this particular niche in agricultural commerce.  Medical marijuana is now legal to some degree in 14 states.  California has a ballot initiative this November that would decriminalize recreational marijuana, allowing for its cultivation, sale and taxation.  As it is reportedly already the largest cash crop in the state, this sounds like a reasonable question to ask the voters.

The problem with all of this “progress” in hemp law is one of focus.  Much like my fixation on the slam dunk and Benny’s love of the long shot, recreational and medical marijuana are really fringe elements to the overall opportunity of hemp.  If we are interested in the societal benefits that would accrue by opening up a new cash crop, why aren’t we talking about hemp and its potential role in renewable energy?  It’s less divisive.  It represents a significantly lower moral threshold.  In fact, it is really good science backed by the common economic sensibilities that are almost always offered by our farming communities.

The first thing we need to realize is that that already have an amazing source for the collection and conversion of solar energy.  It’s called plants.  Photosynthesis collects energy from the sun and stores itself in the molecular bonds of a variety of carbon-based compounds, like starch or cellulose.  The carbon comes from the air.  Water and other minerals from the earth.  With hemp, this all happens in a relatively short cycle of 80 to 120 days.  It’s a quickly renewable resource at that.  Every gardener knows the weeds seem to grow faster than the “good plants.”

We’ll remember from high school chemistry that releases of the energy contained in carbon chains are the products of many reactions, including combustion, decomposition, pyrolysis and others.  It is the lowest hanging fruit when it comes to energy conversion – easier than generating current in photovoltaic cells and more efficient than capturing  kinetic energy with windmills and dams.  We simply haven’t found anything as efficient, affordable safe as tapping the energy stored in carbon-carbon bonds.  And given that we haven’t found a way to grow money on trees, the fact that alternative sources of this carbon mass may utilize existing community assets is a very good thing.

So, given that we are likely stuck tapping into carbon-based energy sources for the foreseeable future,  how exactly does hemp fit it?  Let’s take a look at a few facts about the low THC version of the more popular psychoactive relative:

  • Hemp is a very rugged hybrid, able to grow in a variety of climates with relatively low levels of human intervention (irrigation, pesticides, etc.)
  • Hemp makes and excellent rotation crop, giving current farmers another option in long term management of their land.
  • Hemp can be cultivated and harvested using the current generation of farm equipment, eliminating a need for large investments in new technology.
  • Hemp is relatively drought resistant, allowing it to be a viable crop even in arid climates.
  • Hemp produces four times are much cellulose per acre as hardwood trees.
  • After rendering and removing pulps useful in paper production, hemp still contains 77% recoverable cellulose (versus 60% for wood).  This mass can be converted to biodiesel or converted to energy from biomass.
  • Hemp can produce 10 times the methanol as the same mass of corn.
  • A hemp crop will turn over 5 to 40 times faster than renewable sources of cellulose.
  • Growing hemp produces an estimated $800.00 annual profit per acre of land. This compares to the $200.00 profit per acre enjoyed by soybeans (America’s most profitable cash crop) and the $40 produced by an acre of timber.
  • Hemp-based fuels do not contain sulfur compounds, reducing noxious emissions.
  • Combustion of hemp-based fuels releases less carbon monoxide than similar quantities of fossil fuels.
  • Hemp-based fuels are biodegradable, allowing for easier clean-up if there is an accidental release.
  • Hemp oil is easily rendered into a variety of forms – from pellets to liquid fuel to gases.  Each of these is produced using a fraction of the energy required to produce the same product from a fossil based fuel.
  • Rudolph Diesel, the inventor of the diesel engine, originally designed it to run on hemp seed oil.  Vegetable oil-powered diesel conversions are based on this original concept.
  • The US government outlawed all of this in 1938.  It is against the law to grow industrial hemp in this country.

It’s that last fact that needs to be the focus of our attention.  Many might applaud the “victories” won at the polls for medical marijuana rights.  There is a real chance California will have legal recreational pot in the very near term.

The problem is, despite the slow and steady slog toward to free the black market for cannabis, we are using up time, energy and goodwill by tying the future of the plant to its socially marginal cousin.  Much like dunks and three pointers in basketball, the medical and recreational arguments for marijuana are highlight real stuff.  But just like I learned in 10th grade, they are not the real substance of the game.

The foundation here is the cellulose in the hemp plant.  The pulpy “fruit” of a superbly robust fiber is actually the ultimate solar energy collection device and it doubles as a medium term energy storage solution.  Call it nature’s battery, if you want.  And if you think a dunk can provide electricity in a basketball game, wait until you see what it can mean to a community if 15 – 20% of your energy needs are met by a cheap, plentiful, locally produced hemp-based biomass.

Many people don’t realize that agriculture is the second largest industry in Michigan.  We really don’t have to tell farmers about alternative energy.  They’ve been using mixed solutions forever:  windmills, geothermal, solar panels, propane, fuel oil, diesel fueled tractors, methanol fueled hot rods, wood and corn burners.  If it sounds a bit like a Billy Currington song, it’s because they all are well entrenched in our rural and agricultural communities.

You know what else is in these entrenched in these communities?  Common sense.  Stretching a buck.  Giving a good day’s work for a fair price.  Honesty and personal responsibility.  If I was going to attach my economic future to any one group (and that is what we are talking about in the energy debate), give me the farmers.  You can have the fossil fuel executives and Consumer’s Energy.

In fact, you can have the medical and recreational marijuana arguments.  Those are issues best left for stronger souls than I.  Like the coach suggested in 10th grade, I’ll focus on the fundamentals.  Younger folks can worry about the dunks and highlight reels.  My feet hurt too much to dunk these days, anyway.