December 13, 2007

Study explores use of alternative energy crops

by K.C. Jaehnig


CARBONDALE, Ill. — Could energy made from something other than corn make a go of it in Illinois?

With a $120,000 grant from the Council on Food and Agricultural Research, Ira J. Altman, an agribusiness economist at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, proposes to find out by coming at the question in some new ways.

"Other studies have focused on how much biomass might be available (to turn into fuel or other forms of energy), based on estimates of agronomic factors, such as growth rates, soil types, number of acres in production, "Altman said. "That takes the farmer out of the equation — I want to bring in the human aspects.

"Also, previous studies have not looked at the financial feasibility of production or the economic impacts on rural economies. This is the first study I'm aware of that links these three (study areas) in one research project."

To get at the information, Altman is working on a survey that will go out to some 2,000 Illinois farmers. Using the survey responses, he will then devise a computerized economic model to help him project financial outcomes such as profit margins, rates of return, investment payback periods and the number of jobs and dollars that would be pumped into a region producing alternative energy.

Altman is particularly interested in cellulose ethanol, made from crop waste products such as stover (the leaves and stalks of corn and soybeans), hay and wheat straw. and from so-called "energy crops" such as miscanthus (an extremely tall, perennial grass), hybrid willow and poplar, grown specifically as feedstocks for biomass processors.

"As the No. 2 state in crop production, Illinois already produces stover, hay and wheat straw, and it could easily produce some of these energy crops," Altman said. "The University of Illinois, for example, is already running a miscanthus study.

"But while corn ethanol production is a fairly mature technology, there are no commercial plants right now producing cellulose ethanol, though a number are investigating its feasibility. We're really in the forefront of trying to lead the charge."

Farmer preferences will play a huge role in whether this form of energy takes off, Altman believes. Farmers may not want to sell their crop waste at all, for example.

"Some might argue that taking organic matter off the land is not the best thing to do in terms of soil structure and fertility," he noted.

Some may be willing to sell the waste on a year-to-year basis; others may be willing to enter into contracts for set periods.

"As for dedicated energy crops (those grown specifically for the energy market), that requires a much larger commitment from the farmer, and there are different issues to consider," Altman said.

"What percentage of their crops will they grow for energy? What will be involved in the changeover to these new crops? How much money will they want for them? There aren't going to be spot markets, where they sell on site directly to the consumer, so how do they want to sell these crops?"

Farmer preferences will have an impact on Illinois' chances of successfully developing a biopower industry because of their effects on the costs of buying unprocessed material and reselling it as energy. If power companies don't choose the most efficient way of obtaining biomass feedstock for their generators, they will lose money and get out of the business. Those failures will discourage future efforts at commercialization of this technology.

Altman expects the formal project to take three years, but the work itself could continue beyond that. It wouldn't take much tweaking to adapt the survey for other crop-based versions of plastics, fiber board and renewable energy products, and the computer model could easily be adjusted to reflect the new information.

"The results from this study could help all types of bio-processing facilities in their procurement decisions and commercialization initiatives," he said.