Kentucky biomass initiative receives funds

By Anduin Kirkbride McElroy
An applied research and demonstration project involving biomass and hay production recently received $650,000 in funding for a four-year project. The Kentucky Forage and Grassland Council, along with the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, will evaluate the potential for biomass resources to be grown in northeastern Kentucky, according to Dr. Ray Smith, forage extension specialist at the university.

In order to develop farm production expertise in the region, as well as to establish a regional supply, eight farms are each expected to plant five acres of switchgrass by mid-June. Next year, Smith plans to add 12 more farms, for a total 100 acres of switchgrass. A portion of the grant money will be used to pay the farmers a lost-opportunity cost, as the commercial value of switchgrass in the region hasn't been determined yet.

Separately, a range of biomass crops will be grown on two research plots and will be evaluated for production potential, livestock feed value, fuel value for burning, or cellulosic ethanol production. "We don't know that switchgrass is the best, but we feel like it's the best to get started with," Smith said. "Our goal in the next two years is to plant four farms with alternative crops on a scale-up basis."

Market development is the other focus of the project. East Kentucky Power has expressed interest in using biomass in its co-firing facilities for electrical generation but it is waiting for a guaranteed supply. Converting biomass into pellets, which could then be used for electrical generation or residential heat production, may be another market. The cellulosic ethanol market has also been identified. "If we can get a critical mass with producers who have knowledge to produce it and a supply, then a company like Iogen Corp. may be interested in coming here," Smith said. Iogen currently runs a pilot-scale cellulose-to-ethanol plant in Ottawa. It has plans to build commercial-scale facilities in the future.