Acres of cheap fuel for farmers

UM scientist wants to use switchgrass planted on edge of land for heating needs


QUEENSTOWN -- Ken Staver stepped into his stand of switchgrass beside the Wye River and quickly vanished.

The green blades and tassels bobbed 6 or 7 feet high in the 4-acre plot at the University of Maryland's Wye Research and Education Center. The grass stood thick enough to hide him from a visitor just a few feet away and enveloped him in a stifling, humid embrace.

"You walk into it and you disappear," Staver said, a biosystems engineer at the Wye center.

All this dense growth has sprung up - without fertilizer or chemicals - since the plot was last cut in April. It's a trait that Staver hopes he can convert into a energy boon for Maryland farmers - at the same time it protects Chesapeake Bay water quality and recaptures carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Staver wants to turn switchgrass into a cheap, supplemental heating fuel for farmers. The British-made, straw-burning boiler he installed to help heat the agricultural station's buildings is saving the university 700 to 800 gallons of fuel oil each winter - worth $1,700 to $2,000.

And there's grass to spare. "What we've been able to grow repeatedly, for year after year, is equivalent to about 500 gallons of fuel oil per acre," he said. So, just one of the station's 4-acre plots could provide the heating equivalent of 2,000 gallons of fuel oil, worth about $4,900.

If the idea catches on, Staver argued, farmers could reap a valuable energy crop from marginal acreage - land planted with switchgrass to prevent erosion and soak up excess farm nutrients before they wash into the bay.

"If energy prices go up, all of a sudden you don't have to think of it strictly as a buffer," Staver said. "It has economic value."

All this from humble switchgrass. Known to science as Panicum virgatum, it's a native plant common to North American prairies. It's also found alongside some Maryland marshes.

Concern about global warming and rising oil prices have recently made switchgrass a darling of alternative, renewable-fuel enthusiasts. Even President Bush likes switchgrass. He mentioned it in his 2006 State of the Union address, and included switchgrass-to-energy research in his $289 million Advanced Energy Initiative.

It's no wonder. Switchgrass converts and stores more solar energy per acre than any of the grain crops being used to produce ethanol for fuel, according to Canadian researchers. It holds 66 percent more potential energy than corn, the most efficient agricultural source of ethanol, according to Roger Conway, director of energy policy at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The problem is that scientists haven't devised an energy-efficient technology for converting switchgrass to liquid ethanol fuel.

They are working to find or create bacteria and enzymes that can efficiently digest grass and other so-called "cellulosic biomass" - such as wood chips and agricultural and organic municipal waste - to make ethanol. The potential for energy production is vast, and it would not divert food stocks, animal feed or arable acreage to fuel production.

But the answers remain elusive.

Staver's solution for switchgrass, however, is almost laughably simple: Just burn it.

"If you go to the Department of Energy Web page ... it's all about `reprocessing this, and making that,'" he said. "People are sure that anything this simple can't be useful. ... It's frustrating to me they don't give more support on these kinds of issues."

When he first began working with switchgrass in 1995, Staver wasn't thinking about biofuels. Then, it was all about erosion control, wildlife habitat and water quality.

Switchgrass grows well in poor soils, in wet or dry conditions. It doesn't need fertilizer, and it grows thick enough to crowd out competitors. And it's a perennial grass, so it doesn't have to be replanted every year.

"The only trip across the field every year is to harvest it," he said. "It's easy to establish and it produces a lot of biomass."

Bay restoration efforts in recent years have focused on persuading farmers to plant native species along "buffer" strips between field crops and waterways. The buffers provide erosion control, a habitat for wildlife, and they recapture farm nutrients before they reach the water.

The federal Conservation Reserve Program pays landowners $100 to $150 per acre annually, for up to 10 years, to plant permanent vegetation on idle or highly erodible buffers.

Switchgrass is one obvious choice. But it would take a change in CRP rules to allow farmers to harvest the buffer grass as a biofuel crop. Staver thinks it would help farmers and the bay. "It would give them an economic reason to think about buffers," he said.

His switchgrass plots grow all summer, then go dormant and turn brown in the fall. But instead of falling over like other grasses, switchgrass stands tall all winter, ready for easy cutting in the spring.

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