Biofuels and community participation: Engaging process in the emerging bioeconomy

Final Report for ENC07-100

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2007: $22,709.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2010
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
Dr. Sharon Lezberg
Environmental Resources Center
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Project Information


Project collaborators from the University of Wisconsin Extension (UWEX) worked collaboratively to develop a “Bioenergy and Renewable Energy Community Assessment Toolkit” – a decision-support tool for Extension Educators to aid in facilitation of community participation in bioenergy development.
The toolkit contains:
(1) an introduction to the concept of sustainable bioenergy
(2) an introduction to the community assessment matrix
(3) a community assessment matrix to evaluate opportunities and impacts of renewable energy options (annual/perennial biomass, woody biomass, corn grain ethanol, anaerobic digestion, and wind energy)
(4) a series of questions for discussion about impacts
(5) a community assessment checklist
(6) lessons learned about community participation

Close to 100 Extension colleagues and other natural resource educators received training on the use of the community assessment matrix at four different conference settings. The matrix was also utilized by Wisconsin Extension colleagues during three different programs on renewable energy and bioenergy. The tool provides a framework for facilitating community discussions on renewable energy development.

Evaluation of the matrix tool indicated that the full matrix is valuable in identifying a wide range of potential impacts, both positive and negative, associated with renewable energy development, but is too complex for use at public education forums or community input session. We developed alternative (simplified) discussion guides for use in educational settings. The full matrix tool would be more useful for detailed analysis by a task force or select group of individuals doing more complete assessment of potential renewable energy developments or a specific project proposal.

Project Objectives:

The overall long-term outcome of the project is to provide tools and training to Extension Agents and other community based educators that will provide a ‘process for engagement’ whereby community residents are involved in decision-making about bioenergy production.

Outcomes and performance targets have been modified through the course of the project to reflect current knowledge on the topic and educator needs. At the time of project implementation, very few Wisconsin county based Extension educators had identified biofuels and/or bioenergy development as a significant part of their work; indeed, those who were providing programming in this area were the de-facto ‘experts’ on this subject. Additionally, there was not a lot of community-based experience in how to facilitate discussions on renewable energy development and/or to evaluate developer proposals. Our task, then, was to determine what tools could assist Extension educators in facilitating community involvement in decision-making about renewable energy in general.

Long term Outcomes
  1. 1) educators utilize a community-based participatory framework to respond to this and other emerging agricultural issues
    2) educators address sustainability concerns of agricultural technology development
    3) citizen voices inform public policy regarding siting of biofuels facilities
Short-term Outcomes
  1. 1) have access to information about bioenergy sustainability concerns,
    2) gain insights into the process of community engagement
    3) are exposed to tools and skills to promote community participation
    4) gain confidence in their ability to facilitate community participation in discussions about the bioeconomy
Performance Targets (from original proposal)
  1. 1) develop an inventory of strategies for encouraging community participation in bioenergy assessment
    2) develop training materials for community member participation in bioenergy assessment
    3) conduct an in-service training program for 75 people
    4) test the use of the matrix tool in community settings
    5) share educational materials with others in the region

Situation and Context

Rural communities are rich in natural resources, including land for agriculture, forestry, pasture, and wildlife habitat. This land asset has traditionally been applied toward production of food, feed and fiber. Increasingly, landowners are considering use of land for the production of renewable energy (or ‘fuel’) –in the form of dedicated bioenergy feedstocks, leasing of land for wind farms or transmission lines, or siting energy generating facilities (solar installations, digesters). Renewable energy (dedicated bioenergy crops, forest-based biomass, manure, wind, and solar) holds great promise for rural community economic development and as a means to achieve greater energy independence. Increased demand for land and feedstocks can provide new economic opportunities for farmers, foresters and rural land owners.

However, increased demand for bioenergy feedstocks and rural land can also lead to resource depletion, unsustainable land use practices, and other unintended consequences for wildlife, people, and communities.

Although Wisconsin has lagged behind other cornbelt states in developing biofuels processing facilities, there were – early in the evolution of the corn grain ethanol industry – warning signs regarding the sustainability of biofuel production. Conservationists voiced concerns that farmers would abandon conservation and soil improvement practices in order to plant more corn. Soil and water conservation professionals warned that “Intensive cropping requires intensive conservation systems …” (Wisconsin NRCS, 2007). Scientists questioned the impact that increased corn production would have on water quality and availability, and whether increased use of pesticides and fertilizers will accelerate the expansion of hypoxic zones in coastal waters (Marshall and Greenhalgh, 2006; Jordan, 2007).

One clear take-home message from the warnings of conservation professionals was that the development of renewable fuel sources must be planned carefully, with consideration of potential environmental, economic, and social consequences. Land use changes, in particular, must be evaluated against a full array of ecosystem services - those benefits to human well-being provided by nature, specifically land and natural resources (including land in agriculture or forest) (McDonald, 2010).

Biomass producers are concerned about the economic viability and risks involved with renewable energy markets, as well as the agronomic potential, changes in production practices, and labor issues. For communities, issues of trade-offs, equity in distribution of costs and benefits, and potential for economic development may predominate.

For some, the development of a rural renewable energy industry portends great opportunity; for others, such development comes with potentially deleterious costs. Community decision-makers will increasingly be called upon to determine how to distribute benefits and mitigate or distribute costs, either through establishment of policies and criteria to regulate the industry, or through the negotiation process around siting and establishing a facility.

In some communities in Wisconsin, conflicts have ensued over the siting of ethanol facilities and over whether proposed enterprises will benefit the community. Similar conflicts have arisen in other communities throughout the Midwest over energy plant sitings, conversion of facilities from coal or natural gas to bioenergy, siting of wind turbines and transmission lines, and establishment of anaerobic digesters at large scale dairy farms. These conflicts have been detrimental to community cohesion, and can leave the fabric of a community torn. We suggest that better process in engaging the issues around renewable energy development (and bioenergy specifically) can encourage participation, improve understanding of the issues, and safeguard community assets and interests where biofuels development occurs.

Whether renewable energy – and specifically bioenergy – can move our society onto a more sustainable energy path, relative to our current trajectory, remains unresolved. Our intent with the matrix decision support tool (developed through this project) is not to resolve this question, but rather, to encourage government entities, communities, and land-owners to engage in a process of public deliberation to assure that community residents have a voice in decision-making about renewable energy development within their own community. Communities can elect to impose a standard of sustainability for renewable energy development; in doing so, they set the criteria that industry must meet in order to be appropriate for a particular locale. The matrix is a decision making tool to guide communities toward developing their own standard of sustainability and criteria for meeting that standard.

Extension and other natural resource educators can provide educational programming on renewable energy and potential impacts at the community level, and can be facilitators of community discussions about renewable energy. Community decision-makers and residents are best situated to evaluate the potential impacts of land use changes associated with renewable energy development, and to make recommendations on how to mitigate potential undesirable impacts. The tools that were developed for this project promote community decision making and involvement. We start with the assumption that communities have it in their best interest to identify alternative energy futures, and to do due diligence to analyze all options and to pursue those options that are best for the community.


Jordan, N. G.Boody, W.Broussard, J.D. Glover, D. Keeney, G.H. McCown, G. McIsaac, M. Muller, H. Murray, J. Neal, C. Pansing, R.E. Turner, K. Warner, D. Wyse. 2007. “Sustainable Development of the Agricultural Bio-Economy.” Science. Vol 316: 1570- 1571. 15 June. Vol. 103, no. 30. pgs. 11206-11210.

Marshall, Liz and Suzie Greenhalgh. 2006. “Beyond the RFS: The environmental and economic impacts of increased grain ethanol production in the U.S.”. World Resources Institute Policy Note, Energy: Biofuels. No. 1. September.

McDonald, R. (2010, March 1). Ecosystem Services: Enclosing Nature's Commons? Retrieved 12/ 17/2010, from Cool Green Science: The Conservation Blog of The Nature Conservancy:

Wisconsin Natural Resources Conservation Service. USDA NRCS. “Soil and water issues related to corn grain ethanol production in Wisconsin.” Fact sheet. April 2007.


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  • Andrew Dane
  • Diane Mayerfeld
  • Alan Turnquist

Education & Outreach Initiatives



Our target audience was Wisconsin Extension educators in two program areas (Agriculture and natural resources (ANRE); Community Natural Resources & Economic Development (CNRED)) and other natural resource educators, such as NRCS personnel and community leaders. Methods utilized varied by project activity.

Activities #1 & 2: Preliminary research on community participation process in bioenergy development & Inventory of successful strategies: The P.I. conducted reviews of articles and web pages on communities that had either resisted a bioenergy facility or had conflict around a facility. We spoke with researchers who were looking into situations where there were conflicts concerning the siting of corn-grain ethanol facilities. Project collaborators spoke with a community activist and a bioenergy developer to gain perspective on issues that arise. From these contacts, we developed an inventory of successful strategies for community participation (part six of the toolkit, “Community Participation: Lessons learned” ).

Activity #3: Development of a toolkit for community engagement: Project collaborators researched potential community issues around bioenergy generation, and developed the matrix tool to assist community residents/leaders in evaluating various bioenergy/renewable energy options. Included in the toolkit are five matrices (for annual/perennial biomass; woody biomass; corn grain ethanol; anaerobic digestion; and wind energy) and discussion guides to go with each matrix. A community assessment checklist is included as a simplified guide to test community preparedness.

Activity #4: In service training: We did not do an in-service training, due to the limited number of Wisconsin Extension educators currently involved in bioenergy work. Instead, we presented workshops at four separate conference settings to introduce the matrix (1 for UWEX educators, 2 national, 1 regional).

Outreach and Publications

The “Bioenergy and Renewable Energy Community Assessment Toolkit” (in current draft form) is available at:

The toolkit is currently being peer reviewed. The revised version of the toolkit will be posted at the above address.

On-line training programs on bioenergy and sustainability, on-farm energy conservation and efficiency, and anaerobic digestion will be available electronically starting in April, 2011 at (this is the project portal for the “Energy Independence, Bioenergy Generation and Environmental Sustainability” Curriculum Development Project; all project materials can be accessed via this portal).

Outcomes and impacts:

The goal of this project was to provide tools and training to Extension Agents and other community based educators to engage community residents in decision-making about bioenergy production. Our goal was met partially, in that we developed tools and information to facilitate community participation in renewable energy generation. These tools have been presented at various conference settings for comments by natural resource and Extension educators. Feedback from these conference sessions influenced the development of the tool. The tool was field tested in modified format in two community settings. The training component of the project was not realized in the way specified in the original project proposal (as an in-service training for Wisconsin educators). However, the goal of providing training on these issues is continuing under the umbrella of the regional project - Energy Independence, Bioenergy Generation and Environmental Sustainability Curriculum Development. The community development team is taking the materials generated by this project and including them in their on-line curriculum. The team is also using the framework utilized here (triple bottom line sustainability analysis) to develop a bioenergy preparedness index for communities.

Potential Contributions

Conference presentations/workshops generated interest in the toolkit from a wide range of educators, who indicated that they could adapt the matrix tool for use in their own communities. As a next step, we are reformatting and simplifying the matrix as an excel worksheet so that it can be downloaded and adapted for different situations. Work on this tool has also stimulated the development of a community preparedness index.

Our evaluation of the assessment matrix received the following comment: “There is strength in a tool that allows developers and communities to objectively assess a renewable energy project. That’s what this tool does. Ultimately, the interaction between developer and community generated by this tool will result in citing renewable energy projects that are profitable for developers and compatible with neighbors and consistent with local community values.”

Perhaps the most important contribution of this project is that it is being ‘adopted’ and modified by the multi-state curriculum development project previously mentioned. Project collaborators will have access to the toolkit for use in their own states. The community development team will be developing curriculum that utilizes the toolkit framing and components, and will present these tools in regional training programs.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:
Development of Bioenergy and Renewable Energy Community Assessment Toolkit

Project collaborators from the University of Wisconsin Extension (UWEX) worked collaboratively to develop a “Bioenergy and Renewable Energy Community Assessment Toolkit” – a decision-support tool for Extension Educators to aid in facilitation of community participation in bioenergy development.
The toolkit contains:
(1) an introduction to the concept of sustainable bioenergy
(2) an introduction to the community assessment matrix
(3) a community assessment matrix to evaluate opportunities and impacts of renewable energy options (annual/perennial biomass, woody biomass, corn grain ethanol, anaerobic digestion, and wind energy)
(4) a series of questions for discussion about impacts
(5) a community assessment checklistt
(6) lessons learned about community participation

Extension colleagues and other natural resource educators received training on the use of the community assessment matrix at four different conference settings (One Extension conference, two national conferences, one bioenergy project meeting). The matrix was also utilized by Wisconsin Extension colleagues during three programs on renewable energy.


Potential Contributions

Training of Extension and natural resource educators occurred through four presentations/workshops

1) National Water Program National Conference, Hilton Head, SC, Feb 23, 2010: This national conference was attended by professionals working in some area of water quality and supply. Our session included a presentation by Dr. Tom Franti (University of Nebraska-Lincoln) on water resources and bioenergy development, introduction to curriculum materials in development, and a workshop on using the matrix as a guide to community discussions, and was attended by 50 people, of whom approximately 25 participated in the workshop portion. For this workshop, we broke into three facilitated groups to discuss impacts of various bioenergy options (corn grain ethanol, woody biomass, annual/perennial biomass). Each participant was given a community ‘role’ and was asked to discuss a theoretical biomass facility from the point of view of the community actor.

2) The Joint Conference for Extension Professionals (JCEP), Green Bay, WI, April 7, 2010: This Wisconsin based conference brought in Extension educators from two program areas – Agriculture, Natural Resources, and the Environment (ANRE) and Community, Natural Resources, and Economic Development (CNRED). The conference was also attended by basin educators and others within the Extension system. At this session, we introduced the concept of a triple bottom line analysis for bioenergy developments, and facilitated a small group exercise in using the matrices. We did not utilize the role play activity; rather, we asked individuals to speak from their own understanding of their region and of the bioenergy development being discussed. There were 21 Extension educators present at the workshop.

3) National Soil and Water Conservation Society Meeting, Kansas City, MO. July 19, 2010: This conference was attended by a wide range of soil and water specialists, Extension personnel, and natural resource management agency personnel. Our session had 20 people participating. During the workshop portion of the session, participants broke into small groups to discuss environmental, economic, and social aspects of bioenergy developments, as guided by the matrix, followed by full group discussion about insights from the process. This exercise was well received by individuals who found that they could use the matrix in various ways in their own work.

4) Project meeting of the Energy Independence, Bioenergy Generation and Environmental Sustainability Curriculum Development Team, Madison, WI, Nov. 16, 2010: This meeting of bioenergy and farm energy specialists brought together 31 Extension and University colleagues from 11 states in the North Central region. As part of the program, we presented a similar workshop to those discussed in #2 & #3 above. Participants first learned about two projects from Dane County, Wisconsin – a coal burning heat and electricity facility that was scheduled to be converted to bioenergy, and a community anaerobic digestion facility. Participants then assessed the two initiatives using the matrix to guide discussions.

Pilot testing of matrix

In addition to conference workshops, the assessment matrix was utilized by two Extension colleagues to pilot test the effectiveness of this tool as a means to guide community discussions:

(1) Extension sponsored “Paths to Regional Energy Independence Community Discussions” were held in two locations in Southwest Wisconsin. The community forums provided education about energy issues and renewable energy options and collected participant input as part of a regional energy independence planning process. Discussion data regarding the environmental, social, and economic implications of four referenced renewable energy sources was collected by facilitators of group discussions. Approximately 80 community members participated in the two discussions. The format for collecting input from the public outreach events was to use the triple bottom-line (social, economic, and environmental) as a guide for assessing concerns and opportunities of these renewable energy types. Using the triple bottom line as a guide, discussion groups were asked to summarize their discussions with the following question: What are the greatest concerns and opportunities related to _____(wind, woody and non woody biomass, biogas)? The public input discussions did not utilize the matrix assessment; instead, we provided abridged versions of the discussion guides. The energy independence teams will utilize the matrix assessment tool for a more detailed analysis of renewable energy options.

(2) Agriculture-energy production tour: Extension colleagues from Northwest Wisconsin used the matrix tool as part of an educational tour on renewable energy. The matrix was introduced during the bus ride to facilitate conversations of participants after viewing a corn grain ethanol facility and an anaerobic digester. The organizers wanted participants to understand the depth and breadth of issues associated with various renewable energy options. The tool served to stimulate discussion during the tour. Additionally, the operators of the digester were provided with the tool. The operators indicated that they would benefit by using the tool to facilitate greater public involvement and understanding during all phases of renewable energy generation, including: idea/invention, engineering, financing, permitting, construction, operation/maintenance, and expansion.

Future Recommendations

As demand for new sources of energy increases, Extension educators in both the ANRE and CNRED program areas are being called upon to respond to questions about bioenergy and sustainable renewable energy. Farmers and foresters are interested in supplying feedstocks to the bioenergy industry as a potential alternative market and source of revenue. Communities are interested in developing renewable energy industries for energy independence, job creation, and economic development. Extension educators will continue to be called upon to assist producers and emerging industries in evaluating the feasibility of renewable energy feedstock production and processing. Educators will also be called upon to facilitate community discussions and decision making about renewable energy and energy independence. There are numerous examples of conflicts arising in communities where there has not been attention to participation and process in the development of renewable energy options. As part of the curriculum development project, we hope to offer training not only on the technical aspects of bioenergy generation, but also on the social components – such as how to serve as facilitators of community participation and process – and we recommend continued attention to this component of Extension work. Extension educators can gain confidence in their ability to serve in the role of facilitator by participating in further training that includes both technical and process knowledge.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.