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Could Hemp Disrupt the Energy Industry?

In West Virginia, residents will soon be seeing a lot more green than they’re used to. And it may come in the form of dollar bills, too.

Researchers from West Virginia University are teaming up with a new startup called Agri Carb Electric Corporation to investigate the farming infrastructure benefits of hemp. This will mark the first time West Virginia has allowed hemp cultivation in 70 years.

The state is taking advantage of the Federal Farm Bill, which Obama signed in 2014. The bill allows states to cultivate hemp for research and pilot programs. 23 other states have already begun growing hemp in the last two years.

Hemp is a resilient plant. It’s capable of phytoremediation, a process in which the plant leaches pollutants from the soil, hyper-accumulates them, and metabolizes them. Phytoremediation works particularly well on sites contaminated with heavy metals, uranium, and arsenic. This could potentially clean up fields in West Virginia that have been contaminated by coal and gas extraction.

“There are a lot of contaminated brownfields throughout West Virginia that people find too expensive to cleanup,” said Agri Carb’s CEO, Don Smith II. “We can be a complement to the state’s coal and gas industries by using a hemp cash crop to revitalize spoiled lands. This research should interest every post-industrial community in West Virginia to invest (with grants) and monetize what is now considered worthless.”

The idea here is not just to clean up the fields with hemp, but to use the plants for products that will bring in cash. Hemp has a wide variety of uses, including textiles, fuel, paper, food, plastics, and construction materials.

Although Agri Carb frames this as a boon for West Virginia, the implications go beyond that. Imagine an entire economy supported by the sustainability of hemp.

So what is Agri Carb, and why is the company interested in sustaining agricultural infrastructure with hemp?

‘West Virginia’s newest cleantech startup’

Erik Janus is an entrepreneur and consultant to the West Virginia hemp industry, including companies such as Agri Carb.

According to Janus, “Agri Carb seeks to demonstrate and market advanced carbon applications from a sustainable agriculture base, and we think industrial hemp is the key to establishing a regional bio-based economy and to providing jobs and revenue in the Mountain State.”

In what may be an obvious connection, Janus and Smith are among the organizers of ongoing education and advocacy efforts in West Virginia, including recent "Strategic Cannabis Conferences" in Morgantown and Shepherdstown.

Opioids provide pain relief, but a study cited by WebMD found that marijuana relieves chronic pain. In that light, medical marijuana has the potential to unseat the pharmaceutical industry surrounding opioids. Additionally, the phytocannabinoid CBD, which is found in marijuana and hemp, may be able to help treat epilepsy and schizophrenia.

Agri Carb’s buy-in

The company isn’t growing hemp for medical purposes, however. While Smith says the operation would “complement” the coal and gas industries, the fact is that hemp has potential as a fuel source. It could replace coal for electricity generation (Agri Carb is an “Electric Corporation”, after all), and it could replace gasoline: Hemp seed oil can be made into biodiesel, and you can use fermented hemp stalks to make ethanol and methanol. Biodiesel has passed EPA tests as clean-burning fuel. It’s 11 percent oxygen by weight, contains no sulfur, and extends the life of diesel engines because it acts as a lubricant. Biodiesel can run in regular diesel engines, which would save fleets money, since they wouldn’t have to replace existing trucks.

Unfortunately, biodiesel isn’t compatible with most new diesel engines. That’s because of manufacturers’ response to standards set by the EPA and the California Air Resources Board. But hemp diesel could be used in old engines, and it wouldn’t take a lot to mandate new production of compatible engines, which could eventually replace gas engines.

This would shift the balance of capital away from its concentration in the hands of entrenched traditional fuel interests. Coal will be supplanted first. As we’ve seen in the last year, renewable energy is on the rise while coal is losing out. If hemp becomes a renewable energy source, Agri Carb’s mission may be another nail in coal’s coffin.

By partnering with West Virginia University, Agri Carb is taking a potentially fruitful scientific approach. If they succeed in proving hemp is a viable product for agricultural and economic sustainability, they’ll set a precedent that will be tough to ignore across the United States.


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