|Producing cellulosic ethanol. Click to enlarge.|
The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) today released a report, Achieving Sustainable Production of Agricultural Biomass for Biorefinery Feedstock, that details the potential of cellulosic biomass as an energy resource and the promise of no-till farming for greater residue collection.
It also proposes guidelines and incentives to encourage farmers to produce, harvest and deliver sufficient feedstock to the growing biorefinery and biofuels industry in an economically and environmentally sustainable way.
As we approach the Thanksgiving travel season, Americans should feel confident that US farmers can produce both abundant supplies of food for people and animals and environmentally responsible biofuels for transportation.—Jim Greenwood, president and CEO of BIO
The report examines considerations for sustainable harvesting of agricultural residues such as corn stover and cereal straws—the most likely cellulosic feedstocks for commercial-scale production of ethanol in the near term. These two sources could potentially supply more than 200 million dry tons of feedstock annually within three to five years, enough to triple current ethanol production.
Corn stover has the largest potential as a near-term biorefinery feedstock, given its high per-acre yields, according to the report. Dedicated energy crops such as switchgrass will follow as a feedstock supplement once a market for cellulosic biomass develops further.
The vision of cellulosic biomass as a source for fuels is only achievable, the report notes, if feedstocks are sustainably produced, harvested and processed.
Current cropping practices require that most or all stover remain on the field to maintain soil health. As biorefinery construction creates markets for crop residues, farmers will be more motivated to adopt practices that lead to economic and sustainable removal. An environmental and economic optimum removal will balance sufficient retention of residues to avoid erosion losses and maintain soil quality while using excess residue as biorefinery feedstocks. The impact of varying levels of stover and straw removal will depend considerably on local conditions and practices.
BIO makes a number of recommendations for Congress to implement in the 2007 Farm Bill to help facilitate development of the infrastructure necessary for sustainable production and collection of cellulosic agricultural feedstocks and achieve the Department of Energy’s goal of 30% displacement of petroleum with renewable bio-based feedstocks by 2030. These include:
Fund research and development and provide incentives for the development of one-pass harvesting equipment and other new harvesting equipment for collection of cellulosic agricultural feedstocks;
Develop and make available simple-to-use soil carbon computer models to allow individual farmers to compute how much crop residue can be collected without degrading soil quality;
Provide assistance to farmers to encourage the transition to no-till cropping for biomass production;
Provide incentives for the development and expansion of short line and regional rail networks for transport of cellulosic feedstocks;
Fund regional demonstration projects to streamline the collection, transport and storage of cellulosic feedstocks;
Develop a system to monetize greenhouse gas credits generated by production of ethanol and other products from agricultural feedstocks; and
Fund programs to help farmers identify and grow the most suitable crops for both food production and cellulosic biomass production.