A Grower Community Musters

By Tim Portz | August 20, 2013

In this issue of Biomass Magazine, we investigate the momentum building for purpose-grown or dedicated energy crops and algal biomass inputs. Crops like arundo donax, miscanthus, Giant King Grass, switchgrass and others are being cultivated, as their name suggests, exclusively for their downstream conversion into energy products. On the one hand, this frees these crops from some of the agronomic practices so common in their food and feed crop cousins. Largely, energy crops are perennials, and once established, deliver abundant volumes of biomass per acre. Moreover, energy crops are often grown on marginal lands that wouldn’t deliver the requisite yields with more traditional annual cropping systems. Together, these two attributes alone form the impressive one-two punch that continues to drive investment in the kind of plant breeding, stand establishment and conversion research activities that are featured in the pages that follow. On the other hand, because these crops are designed exclusively for the production of energy products, there are no other markets driving their development or delivering additional revenue streams that could augment the revenues producers will receive for the biomass bound for energy production.

Sue Retka Schill’s feature “Dedicated Feedstock Forerunner” succinctly outlines this dichotomy as she compares the feedstock plans for Chemtex’s Project Alpha in North Carolina with the plans for the cellulosic ethanol facilities currently under construction in the Corn Belt. Retka Schill reports that the acres required to deliver the necessary biomass to Project Alpha will ultimately be half of the acres required to yield the same number of biofuel gallons when compared to standard corn yields and conversion rates. The biggest difference, and arguably the biggest challenge for energy crop developers, is that growers and converters must overcome producer risk. Perhaps the last thing farmers in Iowa concern themselves with when planting corn in the spring is finding a market for the resultant bushels. Their market is virtually assured. Energy crop growers are not guaranteed this surety and, as a result, the acres currently engaged in energy crop production number in the hundreds.

The opportunity is there. Collectively, the projects featured in this month’s issue will generate a market for tens of thousands of energy crop acres. If one thing is certain, it’s that energy crops are increasingly being identified as an input for every energy market this industry serves, and the success of converters and growers will follow the same trajectory.