Bioenergy a hard crop to quantify, but market shows growth

By Sara Wyant

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, April 4, 2012 -Researchers looking for ways to get a handle on the bioenergy crop market in this country will likely need to be patient until more of these non-food crops find wide commercial use. An Agri-Pulse survey of more than 20 sources, including USDA, DOE and Department of Defense agencies, industry sources, academics and market analysts turned up, at best, some anecdotal evidence of the development of these crops. But there simply aren't any hard numbers yet.

For example, an estimated 20,000 acres have been signed up to grow in switchgrass, prairie clover and other dedicated energy crops under a Bioenergy Crop Assistance Program project covering nearly three dozen counties in Missouri and Kansas. Another BCAP project in Oregon is exploiting 35,000 acres of hybrid poplar. And camelina is expected to be grown as a biofuel feedstock in nine states, including production on some 80,000 acres in Montana.

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But Nagendra Singh, a researcher with the DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, says the occasional report of energy crop growth is the best hard information available.“Unfortunately, we do not have a good answer to this question,” he said. While most of the commercially produced biofuels in the United States are first-generation biofuels, mostly derived from corn, soybeans and sugar - all commodities readily easy to track - “there is no data on cellulosic production yet,” he said. “Switchgrass, poplar, miscanthus and other [non-food bioenergy crops] are still not produced commercially in the U.S.”

Camelina is the notable exception. A rotation oilseed for wheat that can be established on marginally productive land, it's an annual, short-season plant. Still, the amount of camelina acreage that can be expected in 2012 is unknown. Biofuel from camelina is an ideal substitute for some of the 40 billion gallons in jet fuel needed annually for global passenger flights, in addition to meeting military aviation needs. The potential from camelina is great enough for USDA to launch a pilot crop insurance program for the oilseed in two states (see sidebar).

Another ORNL researcher, Laurence Eaton, whose work includes last year's update of the Billion-Ton Study, first released in 2005, says that while Oak Ridge has “very detailed projections of future plantings across market scenarios for commercial development of new uses of biomass for energy, I'm not aware of a concentrated effort to track plantings.” But both suggest a number of resources that can show where the bioenergy feedstock crops are trying to take a foothold.

Singh works on LandScan USA, an ORNL model that analyzes land cover for a “bioenergy knowledge discovery framework.” One of the tools he uses is the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service's Cropland Data Layer (CDL), which comes from satellite image observations. While NASS suggests the CDL does not measure with exact precision, the tool does help users visualize cropland changes. Singh says the CDL also helps sort out switchgrass growth in the lower 48 states, where the latest scan shows there were approximately 95.5 square kilometers, or 23,600 acres of switchgrass grown in the U.S. last year. Unfortunately, for map users, that represents only 106,150 pixels out of the more than over 8.6 billion pixels that make up the CDL - too small to distinguish.

USDA is including switchgrass in the 2012 Farm Census, and while it is being explored to harvest for several new products, it's also planted on Conservation Reserve lands, which may limit its availability for harvest for biofuels and other new products.

ORNL's Eaton suggests a number of other resources that can at least show where the development is taking place, particular around the sites of bioenergy facilities around the country. Given the limitations of most of the alternative feedstock's transportation capability, most cellulosic bioenergy crops are going to be developed near the facility.

He cites the Renewable Fuels Association interactive map of biorefinery locations across the country. By placing the cursor over a location, the map will provide location, capacity and feedstock, though users should be cautioned that the map is a bit crowded because it also includes nearly 200 corn ethanol plants.

A little cleaner display is offered by the DOE's interactive map of “integrated” biorefineries, which use some kind of biological matter to produce transportation fuels, chemicals, and heat and power. A cursor pass over the site locations on this map displays the name of the plant, its capacity, its feedstock and the plant's status (commercial, demonstration, pilot, among others).

But don't expect the operators of these facilities to share with you the exact details of their feedstock source. Other than the occasional U.S. government announcement of a grant or loan guarantee in which the funding recipient discloses the resources from which it will draw many renewable energy companies regard their resource capability as proprietary information. For example, ZeaChem recently said in announcing a $232.5 million USDA loan guarantee that would use hybrid poplar from a 35,000-acre site at nearby Greenfield Tree Farm as a feedstock.

Still, there are tools that show an obvious trend in the growth of advanced biofuels and a similar growth in the development of bioenergy crops. The updated Billion Ton Study shows trends indicating that biomass resources could be increased from a current 473 million dry tons annually to nearly 1.1 billion dry tons by 2030, under a conservative set of assumptions about future increases in crop yield.


Original story printed in April 4th, 2012 Agri-Pulse Newsletter.

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