BioCycle Magazine

Cultivating energy crop production

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Courtesy of Courtesy of BioCycle Magazine

A NEW Farm Bill is moving through the Congressional legislative process. Along the way, commercial agriculture is debating the energy impacts of future corn and soybean production. The growth of corn-based ethanol and soybean-based biodiesel has created competition for the feed inputs into animal agriculture, namely corn and soybeans.
While most of agriculture discusses energy production from food crops, a new generation of energy crops is under development. Crops being commercialized include switchgrass, miscanthus, e-grass, hybrid poplars, willows, camelina, jatropha and algae.

Some of these crops will compete for prime farmland and rainfall. Others can and will be grown on marginal lands with limited rainfall or will use wastewater for irrigation. While it will take several years to establish these perennials, developers are moving forward to commercialize them now. All of these biomass energy crops, however, will require a market demand to pay for their production and harvesting.

Hybrid poplar and willows are energy crops already being cultivated across the country for use in environmental remediation. The deep-rooted, perennial nature of these trees and their ability to buffer excess water and nutrients (as well as enhance wildlife habitat) make them ideal for marginal lands. These crops also are high-yielding sources of biomass (10 tons per acre). While the poplars and willows will provide revenue from harvesting without losing the other benefits, policy issues related to marginal land in the Conservation Reserve Program need to be considered.

Some energy crops will compete for land and water resources with existing grain and oilseed crops. Corn and soybeans are feed crops currently being used as energy crops. Growing perennial energy crops such as switchgrass, miscanthus or e-grass yield more biomass energy per acre than either corn or beans.

The following examples provide evidence of this reality: Switchgrass is being grown to feed the Chariton Valley power plant in Ottumwa, Iowa. The current 4,000 acres of switchgrass could expand to 50,000 acres. The miscanthus efforts are being commercialized by John Caveny and Speedling, Inc. They are moving at full speed to develop “seedstock” (transplantable roots or rhizomes). The Biomass Investment Group's (BIG) e-grass is a reed and will be grown on at least 20,000 thousand acres to feed the BIG 130 MW power plant. Camelina is a native high-yielding, oilseed crop of the arid mountain states. The Great Plains Oil and Exploration Company of Montana has a target of growing 100,000 acres of camelina and is paying growers a premium to produce it.

All of these “agricultural” energy crops face commercial production challenges. The greatest are developing a supply of biomass, harvest and storage systems to feed the commercial conversion technology. Instead of putting the “cart before the horse,” these projects are growing the horse while they design and build the cart. They both have to be ready at the same time.

Jatropha is a new oilseed crop that is being grown extensively in developing countries in Asia. The jatropha plant is a hardy bushy shrub that produces nuts that are very high in oil and requires very little water. Jatropha research and production has reached the U.S. with research beginning in Florida, Hawaii, Texas and Missouri.

Commercial algae production for biofuels does not exist today, but there is a feverish race to establish a commercial algae industry. Since January, 15 states have announced either algae production research or the construction of commercial algae production facilities.

Several forces are driving the race to commercialize algae production. First, power plants in Arizona, New Mexico and Kansas are developing algae systems based on the opportunity to capture their CO2 emissions. In October, the first U.S. power plant was denied a permit due to its CO2 emissions. Ironically, it was the Kansas power plant developing an additional algae system. That story is still unfolding, but CO2 emissions will continue to be a significant driver for biorenewable technologies.

Another significant driver for algae production is from water quality pressures. Taking sewage, manure and other industrial organic waste streams and producing a valuable energy product - and simultaneously treating the waste - is very exciting. Much of our municipal wastewater treatment infrastructure is wearing out and public funding is not as available as it once was.

It is the economic hope of locally-grown biofuels that creates the most motivation. Soy-based biodiesel economic challenges have been driven by the high value of food uses of vegetable oil. The production of nontraditional sources of vegetable oil will facilitate both food and fuel uses.

Most of the algae-producing states are doing research or technology development. There are at least two commercial-scale algae production facilities being constructed in Alabama and Pennsylvania. Others are on the drawing board. Can these facilities compete economically? Time will tell. There is already an institutional knowledge in growing algae efficiently in the aquaculture engineering profession. The larger unknown is if vegetable oil can be produced from algae at an economically feasible level.

Finally, we must recognize that some of these energy crops have reputations for uncontrolled growth (algae for example). Now that biomass production efficiency is a goal, harnessing the rapid growth of naturally fast-growing crops is an excellent place to begin.

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