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URBANA — When the nation’s chief energy official stepped off one of the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District’s zero-emissions buses Thursday, she was greeted by a swaying field of an unfamiliar crop: miscanthus.

The giant breed of the perennial crop, standing around 12 feet tall, is one focus of the University of Illinois Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation’s 320-acre Energy Farm, because of its ability to convert into biofuel.

As U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm soon heard, those research efforts are in part funded by her department.

“We’re here at the U of I, and they’re so advanced at identifying agricultural inputs to create ‘Energy 2.0’ — whether its miscanthus that they’re growing on the farm adjacent to the university, whether it is ethanol that is produced from sugar cane, we know that the Midwest will provide solutions to cleaning up our transportation system as well as to heating and cooling our homes and industry,” Granholm told reporters Thursday morning.

Granholm toured three campus facilities that are exploring the next generation of sustainable energy.

Her first stop was the Abbott Power Plant, which supplies around three quarters of the campus’s energy, to learn more about its carbon management and capture program.

(The infrastructure bill recently approved by Congress will send billions to support carbon capture at the nation’s power plants.)

Then she made her way to the CABBI Energy Farm and Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory, to see how the UI creates biodiesel from sugarcane.

Granholm, a former governor of Michigan, remarked on the Midwest’s standout attributes for the future of energy: its manufacturing base and agricultural know-how.

“We don’t simply have to put carbon pollution into the air; we know that we can put people to work by next-generation processes that also save the planet,” she said.

Professor Andrew Leakey, director of CABBI, helped show Granholm around the Energy Farm’s terrain.

“We want farmers in Illinois and elsewhere to be able to grow crops like the miscanthus that Secretary Granholm saw out at our Energy Farm today, produce biodiesel from it in a profitable fashion and at the same time sequester greenhouse gases in a way that slows the progression of climate change,” Leakey said.

During Granholm’s stop, a couple farmers shared their own experiences of growing miscanthus.

“We’ve really got to thread that needle of making it economically and ecologically viable, and so we really wanted to give her a sense of that,” Leakey said.

Granholm highlighted upcoming policies for sustainable energy: carbon-capture grants and private-sector tax incentives for building out clean-energy projects.

She also brought up that the Biden administration encouraged states last month to direct federal funds from the coronavirus relief act Congress passed in March toward easing home-energy costs this winter.

“We’re not interested in raising prices for anybody in a time when people are still struggling to get back from COVID,” Granholm said. “We’re interested in reducing the pain particularly for the families that are most in need.”

Granholm departed C-U on Thursday afternoon to see a community solar project in Kankakee County and a nuclear power plant in Braceville.

“It was a pleasure to show her the fruition of 20 years of funding form the Department of Energy, and how that funding really allowed us to make breakthroughs that we would not have seen without that consistent support,” said Professor Emily Heaton, coordinator of the UI’s Regenerative Agriculture Stakeholder program.

Ethan Simmons is a reporter at The News-Gazette covering the University of Illinois. His email is esimmons@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@ethancsimmons).

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