By Jon H. Harsch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, April 28 – When Congress is out of town, congressional staff keep busy with, among other thing, congressional briefings, such as one this week on “Developing Sustainable Biomass Supplies: A Step toward Energy, Economic, and Environmental Security.”

Biomass experts drawn from across the country told staffers how the Department of Agriculture has turned farm bill provisions passed by Congress into workable programs which encourage farmers to switch into growing new biomass crops like switchgrass – and to supply these crops consistently, at the massive scale needed. During the Environmental & Energy Study Institute (EESI) briefing, Prof. Sam Jackson of the University of Tennessee's Center for Renewable Carbon explained that Tennessee's approach has been to work closely with local farmers on their own land. “To make the biomass-based industry a success, we must begin work now with those who will produce the crops,” he said. “Farmer’s have the expertise needed to produce the crops. They are the best evaluators of the crop.”

Prof. Sam Jackson of the University of Tennessee's Center for Renewable Carbon at Wednesday's Capitol Hill briefing. Photo: Agri-Pulse.

Dr. Jackson pointed out that one essential part of creating a successful biomass industry is to provide early adopters with technical and financial assistance along with crop insurance coverage to overcome start-up challenges. He said these challenges include high establishment costs for unfamiliar perennial crops – and the risk of creating an oversupply situation if downstream processing and distribution systems aren't developed in tandem with ramped up production. To overcome the challenges, he said Tennessee's state-funded Biofuels Initiative was created in 2007 to integrate the supply chain all the way from 61 contracted farms growing 5,000 acres of switchgrass to a biorefinery pumping out cellulosic ethanol, and “entering that fuel into the marketplace.” He said the program has been producing the fuel since Dec. 2009 at demonstration scale.

One farm-level challenge, Jackson said, is that “our switchgrass averages nine feet tall in the field” and yields over eight dry tons per acre, producing “three to four times the number of bales for the normal hay field . . . so we're talking about a much higher volume feedstock.” He concluded that the key is working with private farmers “because ultimately when we're producing millions of acres of feedstocks in this country, it's going to be the private farmer who does that, and so we need to get them involved, we need to learn from their experiences.”

Jackson said “what we're talking about here is standard agriculture. We're producing a crop, we're harvesting a crop and we're delivering it. The key difference here from traditional agriculture is the perennial nature of the dedicated energy crops . . . so it's a very different decision-making framework for producers compared to corn.” He said this difference calls for USDA farm policies which provide long-term consistency – not programs which Congress can change radically from one year or from one farm bill to the next. As well, he said an energy crop supply chain calls for “10 to 20 year supply contracts” because “a farmer is not going to plant a crop that he has no market for or return from and likewise a biorefinery operator is not going to spend a quarter of a billion dollars on a facility that they don't have an assurance of feedstocks for.”

USDA Agricultural Research Service scientist Jeffrey Steiner, National Program Leader for Biomass Production Systems, put the biomass challenge in perspective by pointing out that the U.S. now produces nearly 15 billion gallons of ethanol – after decades of effort. He said under the federal Renewable Fuels Standard, the goal is to add another 21 billion gallons by 2022. He called this goal “very doable” but warned that reaching the goal will “take 29 million acres of production beyond corn grain ethanol . . . an area that is roughly equivalent to the corn and soybean production right now in the state of Iowa.”

Dr. Steiner said that in boosting production dramatically to meet new biofuel demand, private industry, science and government need to work closely together because the new biomass industry has to be productive and profitable while also achieving sustainable “resource stewardship” which includes not only environmental goals but “also our social capital, our jobs, our communities.” He and other speakers said USDA programs including the Biomass Crop Assistance Program and the Sun Grant Initiative are providing the extra tools needed to move renewable bioenergy toward full-scale commercial production.

To download the five presentations from the Environmental & Energy Study Institute's biomass briefing, click HERE.

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