Knocking $40 per ton out of biomass costs, the green way

January 24, 2013 |

wildlife-reviewDoes energy production always require a choice between what’s good for nature and what’s good for the pocketbook?

New ways of organizing feedstocks may offer opportunities to go green and make green.

In Maryland, The Wildlife Society released a Technical Review, “Effects of Bioenergy Production on Wildlife and Wildlife Habitat,” to provide answers to questions on bioenergy development and wildlife so that site managers might better predict consequences of growing and harvesting bioenergy feedstocks.

The review identified key biomass management practices for croplands; grasslands (including Conservation Reserve Program land); forest ecosystems; and for algae and aquatic feedstocks. It can be downloaded here. It’s a highly worthwhile read.

One of the questions addressed in the report was the use of Conservation Reserve Program land for bioenergy production.

If you are not familiar with the program: 32 million acres of cropland are enrolled in CRP, and farmers receive an average payment of $57 per acre per year in a program designed to reduce crop production, diminish soil erosion, and improve water quality on highly erodible agricultural lands.

The program was developed back in an era when there was more land available for production agriculture than markets could support in food, feed and bioenergy demand — keeping land out of production helped support crop prices while improving land quality and was also aimed to improve wildlife habitat.

But here’s something not often reported with respect to CRP. As the Wildlife Society report details:

“Introduced grasses and legumes were planted on 71% of the hectares during the first 11 (annual) signups…As these pasture grasses became more established, number and diversity of plant and wildlife species generally declined over time…CRP fields often became monoculture stands with limited wildlife use except as escape, thermal, and nesting cover.”

Could we do better with CRP? Does bioenergy have a role?

As the report details: “From a production standpoint, Tillman et al. (2006) reported that diverse (16 species) native mixes planted on degraded infertile land produced more than twice the biomass a decade after establishment compared to monoculture plantings and contained 51% more overall energy than current corn and soybean biofuels grown on fertile lands.”

Well, that sounds more promising than current CRP results. Diverse native mixes, vs introduced, pasture grass monocultures. Twice the energy content of corn or soybeans.

The Switchgrass opportunity

Which brings us to switchgrass, briefly.

As a 2012 survey of switchgrass by Arjun Pandey at Oklahoma A&M reminds, “The U.S. Department of Energy selected switchgrass as a promising herbaceous energy crop by evaluating 34 different species. Being perennial and native in its habitat, it is distributed in a wide range of environments and can be grown with minimal management on marginal land with poor growth conditions.

As Biomass Magazine notes: “Oakridge National Laboratory and Dartmouth College researchers compiled 1,190 biomass yield observations for both lowland and upland types of switchgrass grown on 39 sites across the U.S.” In the study, lowland switchgrass yields averaged 5.74 tons per acre per year, and upland switchgrass recorded 3.88 tons per acre.

Over at Ceres, field trials with Blade Energy grasses have produced up to 10 tons of biomass per acre, with one experimental variety in California recording 19 tons per acre.

So, why exactly isn’t there a rush to plant native mixes that double the energy content of corn, and improve habitat by replacing low-value CRP monocultures with diverse polycultures?

Generally speaking, it comes down to money. For example, a six-ton switchgrass harvest at $55 per acre yields $330 per acre, while a 160-bushel corn harvest at $7 per bushel yields $1020. Sure, there are inputs to consider, and switchgrass can grow on marginal land, and so on. But you get the general idea.

Options for conservationists and farmers

So, what’s a country to do? One thing is to reinvigorate the coalition between conservation and farming forces. Once, it produced programs like CRP; today, it has fractured, primarily over corn politics, and neither does it produce supportive momentum for the Renewable Fuel Standard, or much excitement about conservation.

Another option — opening up federal or state land, or CRP land, for dedicated biofuels production. Currently, that’s not allowed under Biomass Crop Assistance Program rules.

But consider the impact of land cost on crop production. One way to look at this is cash rents for land.

Cash rents vary from $252 per acre in Iowa to $194 in Western Ohio. Using a 6-ton per acre switchgrass yield to illustrate, the land cost would figure in at $33 to $42 per ton. That’s strictly for illustration – as you would never likely see high-profit Iowa cropland devoted to switchgrass. But consider that BCAP payments from USDA can reach up to $45 per acre.

Sustainable energy platforms

So you can see how the idea works. Making land available, on a no-cost/low-cost zoned basis, for biofuels production that creates $55 per ton biomass to support the Renewable Fuel Standard — doesn’t have to be destructive of habitat, it can improve it. Or, making it possible to utilize CRP land where it would replace monoculture introduced grasses with polyculture native grasses – knocking the land cost out can make the economics work.

Consider the building of railroads, which marked the first move of the US from sustainable energy towards fossil energy for transport. How were railroads financed? Through provisions of US land – railroads used the land grants to finance rail construction. And the US interstate highway system was built using federal money for land acquisition, and the power of eminent domain.

Seems reasonable enough that — since land giveaways and eminent domain acquisition were used to finance the demand build-up for the last energy platform – land rent could be used to help with this one.

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