SE biomass conference panel explores energy crops

By Lisa Gibson | November 02, 2011

Having already heard a great deal about the ample wood resources in the Southeast U.S., a panel discussion about energy crops was refreshing for the feedstock track at the Southeast Biomass Conference & Trade Show in Atlanta on Nov. 1-3.

Phillip Jennings, chief operating officer of Repreve Renewables, kicked off the panel with information on his company’s energy crop Freedom Giant Miscanthus. The perennial yields 20 tons per acre in Repreve’s fields now, he said, and one acre can yield 28 tons of biomass over the first three years.

“One of the things we like most about the giant miscanthus is its dormant harvest,” Jennings said, adding that the nutrients and moisture are absorbed back into the roots. The grass yields a harvest with 10 to 12 percent moisture, and Jennings emphasized that statistic more than once. “I keep driving that point more because I think it’s so important,” he said.

Freedom, planted with rhizomes, yields three to five times that of switchgrass or timber and almost double the yield of other giant miscanthus varieties, he said. The crop is developed specifically for growth in the Southeast U.S. in sandy soils. Concluding his presentation, Jennings invited all the attendees to Repreve’s Freedom Field Day in Soperton, Ga., Jan. 10-11. “We’ll let you touch and feel,” he said.

Jennings wasn’t the only one to address miscanthus on the panel, but was the only one to discuss planting miscanthus rhizomes. Rasto Ivanic, senior director of business development for Mendel Bioenergy Seeds, discussed his work with a seeded miscanthus named PowerCane. “Miscanthus is a fantastic crop,” he said. “It’s been used in Europe for a while.”

Mendel is preparing for a commercial launch of PowerCane, Ivanic said, having done extensive testing and trials alongside other energy crop varieties. “What we have seen in the Southeast is our product is as good, if not better, than what’s available out there,” he said. “We are investing a lot of resources in proving this out.” The company has a ways to go before commercialization but the goal is to have hundreds of thousands of acres by 2015-2016, Ivanic said. With 50 trials across the U.S., Mendel is on its way to achieving its goal, but Ivanic said help and partners with varying specialties are crucial to the success of such a project. “To make a project work, there is not one company that can do it,” he said.

But attendees learned that energy crops not necessarily considered traditional can contribute to energy production, also. Cole Gustafson, professor and biofuels economist for North Dakota State University, talked about an ongoing project that uses energy beets to produce biofuels. Through a public-private partnership among NDSU, Green Vision Group and Heartland Biofuels, a biorefinery near Spiritwood, N.D., is making 20 million gallons per year of biofuel using the infrastructure of an existing combined-heat-and-power plant in the area.

Energy beets would fare well as a crop in the Southeast as well, he said, because it yields twice the biofuel production per acre of corn, has deep tap roots extending eight feet, the technology is proven in Europe, it uses a one-step conversion process, and is drought and alkali tolerant.

Phase one is completed, Gustafson said, and included commercial testing, economic feasibility, four locations of field trials, and storage. Phase two will make us eligible for a $1 million N.D. Renewable Energy grant and will include crop insurance, life-cycle analysis, expanded yield trials, beet pressing and more storage.

Rounding out the panel, Bob Randle, vice president of business development for Genera Energy, discussed the overall advantage of all energy crops, emphasizing switchgrass but saying the company’s focus can apply to all energy crops. “We’re feedstock agnostic,” he said.

Geneva has 5,100 acres of switchgrass in nine counties in eastern Tennessee. The company is also working to build a biomass innovation park outside Knoxville, Tenn., and owns a cellulosic biofuel biorefienery that is operated by DuPont.

Energy crops bring a number of advantages, Randle said, including scalability, sustainability, a broad range of suitable land types, consistent feedstock quality, and rural economic development.

For more information on the conference, click here.