By Chuck Gill, Penn State
UNIVERSITY PARK – The Northeast could help lead the way to a renewable-energy-based economy by utilizing marginal and abandoned land to grow energy crops such as perennial grasses and fast-growing woody plants.
That’s the goal of a new research and education project led by Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences and supported by a $10 million grant, announced today (Oct. 16), from the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
The Northeast Woody/Warm-season Biomass Consortium, or NEWBio, will develop perennial feedstock production systems and supply chains for shrub willow — a short-rotation woody crop — and the warm-season grasses switchgrass and miscanthus. The project will promote the use of marginal farmland and abandoned lands, such as reclaimed mine sites, so that these crops will not compete for resources with food production.
“The Northeast has substantial demand for transportation fuels, an educated and capable rural workforce, and more than 3 million acres of marginal, degraded and abandoned land that could become productive, profitable sources of biomass with improved management,” said project leader Tom Richard, professor of agricultural and biological engineering and director of the Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment.
“Sustainable bioenergy systems could provide broad societal benefits,” he said. “NEWBio is aimed at overcoming existing barriers and dramatically increasing the sustainable, cost-effective supply of lignocellulosic biomass, while reducing net greenhouse gas emissions, enhancing ecosystem services and building vibrant communities.”
Consortium partners include Cornell University, State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, West Virginia University, Delaware State University, Ohio State University, Rutgers University, Drexel University, University of Vermont, the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s Eastern Regional Research Center and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Idaho National Laboratory.
Spanning from New England to West Virginia, the project also will engage state and local agencies, citizen groups, environmental and economic development organizations, and companies in fields such as crop genetics and fuel manufacturing and use.
Among key industrial collaborators are Aloterra Energy, American Refining Group, Case New Holland, Double A Willow, Ernst Conservation Seeds, Mascoma, Praxair, Primus Green Energy and Terra Green Energy.
Richard explained that NEWBio will center on four large demonstration projects, each with biomass production and supply chains operating at commercial scales of thousands of acres. The projects will be geared to produce 500 to 1,200 tons per day of lignocellulosic biomass suitable for manufacturing advanced transportation fuels.
“Each demonstration project will be located in a specific community, with real industrial customers,” he said. “These areas have unique agronomic and socioeconomic conditions that will allow analysis of multiple feedstock business models, ranging from corporate-owned and leased plantations to contract growing to commodity marketing.
“With commercial collaborators committed to feedstock production, logistics, preprocessing and conversion, these demonstration sites will provide a real-world focus for our team’s research, extension and educational efforts.”.
NEWBio will address technical issues in three areas: human systems; plant production and genetics; and harvest, preprocessing and logistics. Integrated with these technical thrusts will be teams looking at sustainability systems, safety and health, extension and educational programs, and leadership and evaluation.
Researchers involved in the project include plant scientists, agricultural and biological engineers, forest scientists, agricultural safety and health specialists, agronomists, agricultural economists, rural sociologists, supply-chain and business-development experts, and extension educators..
Richard noted that plant scientists will work to improve the ability of crops to grow on marginal lands and to resist insects and diseases, with a goal of increasing yields by 25 percent and reducing costs by 20 percent. Social scientists will examine stakeholder needs and attitudes and economic incentives, with an eye toward gaining informed participation from local businesses, entrepreneurs and community leaders.
“Extension educators located near demonstration sites will coordinate project activities in and around the sites and facilitate landowner and business involvement in the biomass supply chain,” Richard said. “They will work with applied researchers at the partner universities to organize workshops, field days, K-16 field trips, professional short courses and e-learning modules to encourage community engagement and ensure a sustainable flow of biomass to the plants.”.
The first such NEWBio educational event will be a short course and site tour titled “Perennial Grass Energy in the Northeast,” Oct. 24 and 25 in Meadville, Pa. More information is available online at http://psu.ag/SWJT3g.
Richard said project partners believe that perennial energy crops can play a central role in creating a sustainable bioenergy future for the Northeast.
“This region encompasses less than 10 percent of the land area of the United States yet is home to over 20 percent of its population,” he said. “Although it includes four of the 11 largest metropolitan regions in the nation, the landscape is dominated by rural communities suffering from decades of decline.
“Biomass energy could provide the social, economic and ecological drivers for a sustainable rural renaissance.”