What is in this article?:
- The next generation of biofuels is entering commercial production which offers farmers new income opportunities while reducing the U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
- Advanced biofuels are high-energy liquid transportation fuels derived from low-nutrient input, high-yield crops including switchgrass, miscanthus, and others; agricultural and forestry waste; and other sustainable biomass feedstocks.
- These renewable biomass sources are converted through various processes to break down the cellulose in plant cells to produce cellulosic ethanol and other products.
Steven Chu, left, U.S. Energy Secretary, discusses advanced biofuels during a town-hall discussion with moderator John Kneiss of Hart Energy Consulting during the 2012 Biomass Conference held in Washington, D.C. in July.
“We are making strong progress toward our national biofuel goal. By replacing imported fossil fuels with renewable, home-grown biofuels, we’re working to ensure our economic security, our national security, and the safety of our air and water.”
Many of the first wave of advanced biofuel refineries will be located in the Midwest. The DOE says refineries will eventually be built coast to coast. This will require biomass production nationwide which will offer crop diversity and profit potential for farmers.
The USDA Farm Service Agency’s (FSA) voluntary biomass crop assistance program (BCAP) offers farmers financial assistance to produce biomass crops. FSA funds offset many production-related costs. Most BCAP programs give farmers six months to enroll. BCAP is available in 11 areas of the country, funded by the 2007 farm law.
A BCAP program offered in the West in 2011 fell short of its acreage sign-up goal. Producers in California, Montana, Oregon, and Washington were asked to grow 51,000 acres of the weed camelina, camelina sativa, for conversion to cellulosic ethanol for jet fuel. The FSA project sought 30,000 acres in California alone.
Under the western BCAP program, camelina would be grown as a rotational crop with cereal grains on marginally productive land with limited available water under a multi-year FSA contract.
At the Biomass Conference, FSA biomass crop assistance manager Kelly Novak addressed the federal government’s efforts to enroll biofuel acreage. She said about 3,000 acres were enrolled in the four-state camelina program including 2,000 acres in California.
Novak says the lower-than-expected farmer participation was based on a shorter sign-up period (less than two months), reduced overall federal funds, insufficient production information about camelina, and a difficulty to answer farmers’ questions during the brief sign-up period.
Congress will decide in the next farm bill whether BCAP biomass programs will be available in the future.
Algae is one of the most talked about potential feedstock sources for advanced biofuels. Scientists are developing various algae strains which could be grown in different regions of the country.
A potential hotbed for algae production could run from San Diego, Calif., to West Texas due to the region’s abundant sunshine and hot summer temperatures.
“The cost of algae production has come down dramatically to make it cost competitive,” said Valerie Reed, the DOE’s acting biomass program director. “We are probably looking at a 10-year time frame for the commercial production of algae.”
The road to commercial advanced biofuel production has been a slow ride. One reason is the difficulty to gain investors to financially support new energy development. In addition, financial challenges caused by the Great Recession slowed industry progress.
“Its success depends on the work of a diverse stakeholder group – farmers, agronomists, lab scientists, engineers, investors, entrepreneurs, industry groups, environmental organizations, academics, lawmakers, and government officials,” Reed said.
In retrospect, the grain ethanol industry took 40 years to mature to its current high production efficiencies.
The stars appear lined up for advanced biofuels. The next generation of renewable energy has arrived.