Company eyes hemp as feedstock for biofuel, power generation

By Holly Jessen | December 14, 2012

An alternative energy company looking to build multiple energy beet-to-biofuel plants in Kentucky recently became the first corporation to join the Kentucky Hemp Growers Cooperative Association. Although federal rules currently prohibit the growth of hemp in the U.S., Patriot Bioenergy Corp. sees value in industrial hemp for biomass blending with bituminous coal for power generation as well as a possible cellulosic feedstock for biofuels.

Patriot Bioenergy plans to first build a 4 MMgy energy beet and waste sugar biofuel plant in Williamsburg, Ky., followed by a 4 MMgy plant in Columbia, Ky., and a 2 MMgy facility in Pikeville, Ky. The company is considering ethanol or possibly butanol production, CEO Roger Ford told Ethanol Producer Magazine.

On Dec. 10 the company announced it would undertake a preliminary research study on blending hemp pellets with coal. The company would also explore the possibility of growing the plant on post-mining reclamation and marginal land in Kentucky. The goal is to complete laboratory testing and issue a report by February 2013. "While Patriot is an alternative energy company, part of our goal is to create synergies with coal, natural gas, and bioamss to increase competitiveness and more opportunities in an increasingly challenging market,” Ford said. “In addition, the potential for farm-based power generation, through gasification of used horse bedding, is also a potential facet to be explored, which will reduce a waste disposal issues for the horse industry.”

Hemp has been classified incorrectly as a narcotic, Ford said, adding that it has no value as a drug. Industrial hemp has low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in marijuana. Kentucky has a long history of growing hemp, particularly during WWII, and Ford would like to see Kentucky and Patriot Bioenergy became modern leaders in growing the crop.

The company’s interest in hemp is multifaceted, as the plant can be used to create multiple products, ranging from biodiesel from hemp seed oil to clothing or rope from the fibers. The vision is that hemp could help the company generate revenue from multiple sources as part of its energy park concept. Hemp has a high yield per acre, meaning it can produce large amounts of biomass on a smaller footprint. “That’s the most attractive thing about this,” Ford said.

Although a few states, such as North Dakota, have registered farmers to grow industrial hemp, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration could still hold U.S. farmers criminally liable under the Controlled Substance Act. Equipment or land used to grow hemp could be seized under civil forfeiture laws, said Tom Murphy, national outreach coordinator for Vote Hemp, a nonprofit organization working toward acceptance of low THC oilseed and fiber varieties of cannabis.

In a few states, such as North Dakota, farmers are registered to grow hemp, but federal hurdles remain and tractors or land used to grow hemp could be seized under civil forfeiture. “Nobody is willing to literally bet the farm to find out [what would happen if they planted hemp,]” Murphy told EPM. In 2011, bills were introduced in the U.S. House and Senate, in an effort to legalize the growth of hemp, but were ultimately unsuccessful. Efforts to reintroduce similar bills in 2013 are ongoing.

In other news, Patriot Bioenergy is planning to establish a nonprofit energy/sugar beet growers cooperative in the Cumberland Valley Area Development District region of Kentucky. The beets are Roundup Ready and are part of trials being conducted with Betaseed Corp. The company wants to see farmers immediately begin producing the beets, which can be utilized as a livestock feed supplement for local cattle ranchers and, eventually, as a feedstock for the proposed biofuel plants. "Our hope is that we can bring farmers to the table, show them the viability of the crop, and lay the groundwork for future growth," said Terry Saylor, director of agriculture operations for Patriot Bioenergy.