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Biomass: Sustainable energy for the future

August 27, 2008
By Richard Gast, Franklin County Cornell Cooperative Extension

Imagine, if you will, that our next big energy resource find is the single most important energy find ever, and that it's not in the oil fields of the Middle East, the former Soviet Union or Venezuela; that instead, it is discovered right here in the agricultural lands and forest of the good old U.S. of A.

And while you're at it, imagine that that energy resource:

=Is a clean alternative to fossil fuels

=Can be used for powering motor vehicles, generating electricity and home and industrial heating

=Represents independence from foreign oil, a cash crop for farmers, and extensive rural economic development benefits

=Promotes productive use of land, including land that is not or has never been in production, even if that land has been environmentally damaged

=Ensures that precious wildlife habitats, natural wonders and national treasures can be preserved and enhanced forever.

Sound impossible? Far from it, actually. In fact, the opportunities for biomass energy, that is, energy derived from the organic matter in agricultural crops, trees, crop residues, manure and other living plant material are pretty much limitless.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), biomass is currently, the only clean, renewable energy source that can help to significantly diversify transportation fuels.

The DOE also believes that tripling our use of biomass energy could provide billions of dollars in new income for farmers and rural communities and reduce global warming emissions by an amount equal to taking 70 million cars off the road.

At this time, corn is the most widely used bio-energy crop, but it is very likely that native grasses, such as switchgrass, and fast growing tree and forest crops, like willow and poplar, will become much more widely used in the near future.

Perennial field and agro-forestry crops are more sustainable, easier to grow and manage, and markedly cheaper to produce than corn, which requires large amounts of fertilizer and considerable maintenance.

Because it is high yielding and can be harvested annually for several years before replanting, switchgrass is considered the herbaceous crop with the greatest energy and profit potential. But other fast growing native grasses, such as reed canarygrass, are also quite promising.

Findings from a study conducted at the DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee by researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and published in the Jan.7-11, 2008 "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences" state that "switchgrass produced 540 percent more renewable than nonrenewable energy consumed."

In other words, switchgrass yielded more than 540 percent more energy than the energy needed to produce and convert it to ethanol.

The Oak Ridge study also concluded that American farmers could grow 188 million dry tons of switchgrass on 42 million acres of cropland in the United States at a price of less than $50 per dry ton delivered. That level of production could increase total U.S. net farm income by nearly $6 billion.

Research findings from a 10 year study conducted at Minnesota's Cedar Creek Natural History Area and supported by the National Science Foundation and the University of Minnesota Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment endorse growing a mixture of native perennial grasses and flowering plants.

The study concluded that such mixtures provide more usable energy per acre than corn grain ethanol or soybean biodiesel and on average, 238 percent more bioenergy than the same land planted with any other single prairie plant species, including switchgrass.

The study also determined that including legumes that require no pesticides, herbicides or irrigation in mixed plantings can help prevent soil erosion, while removing carbon dioxide from the air and storing that carbon in the plants' root systems as organic matter and in the soil itself, actually adding fertility to degraded lands. Those findings were published in the Dec. 8, 2006 issue of the journal, Science.

Fast growing trees represent another extremely promising bioenergy option. There are a number of species suited to cool, wet, northern climates, like ours, that can be planted and harvested in ten to 20-year rotations while several warmer weather species will grow to 40 feet tall in just eight to ten years. Some will even grow back after being cut down.

What's more, wood that would otherwise have no commercial value can readily be used as biofuel. This includes non-commercial tree species and low grade cull trees growing in privately managed non-industrial forests, as well as many of the tops and branches left over from timber harvesting or storm damage. (The rest would have to be left on the forest floor to maintain habitat and soil quality.) Pulp mill, sawmill and construction waste could also be put to use as fuel. And, as demand for these products increases, so will their value.

Farm and forest produced biomass energy could also be used on site for heating, generating electricity, and as fuel for tractors and machinery.

It has been suggested that America's farmers, private forest landowners and/or rural communities might even consider forming local co-ops that produce energy and/or energy products from biomass crops grown and harvested locally. That way, money spent within a certain region on biomass fuel would stay in the regional economy, supporting local agriculture and forestry and creating jobs.

And, if local cities, villages and townships used locally grown crops and residues for all of their energy needs, those rural communities could become entirely energy self-sufficient.



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