A New Provision in the 2008 Farm Bill's Energy Title could be just the incentive some producers need to test growing biomass for huge renewable energy markets ahead.

The new Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) may help solve “the chicken or the egg problem” in the development of the cellulosic ethanol industry, says Anna Rath, vice president, commercial development, Ceres Inc.

The problem definitely is a question of which comes first: Many growers have been interested in growing dedicated energy crops but have not had a market for them, and cellulosic ethanol producers have been unwilling to construct plants without readily available feedstock nearby.

However, with significant investments from the federal government, continued improvements in cellulosic ethanol production economics, and improvements in biomass crop yields, the large-scale production of energy crops is drawing nearer.

What is the potential? The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 amended the Renewable Fuels Standard to provide for 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel in 2022. Just 15 billion gallons of the 36-billion-gallon target will come from corn starch-based biofuels. The remaining 21 billion gallons will come from other sources, such as energy crops, ag residues or municipal wastes.

Russ Sanders, director of marketing, Pioneer Hi-Bred, figures that if each ton of biomass produces at least 75 gallons of cellulosic ethanol, 280 million tons of biomass will be needed to produce 21 billion gallons of renewable fuel.

Energy crops are not yet well understood. But several public institutions and private sector companies are increasing their focus on how to produce, harvest, store and transport them.

To help growers through the learning curve, the BCAP will enable biorefineries and grower groups to apply for up to a 75% cost share on the establishment of energy crops. The program also will enable growers to receive an undeclared amount for ongoing annual payments until a biorefinery begins to purchase their feedstocks.

This program will provide for five-year contracts for herbaceous crops and 15-year contracts for woody crops. It also will provide incentives for producers to harvest, store and transport biomass to bioenergy facilities.

Although the BCAP has no designated funding yet, the USDA is expected to have flexibility in its design. A production tax credit for up to $1.01/gal. will be available through December 31, 2012.

First energy seed brand

Ceres, Thousand Oaks, CA, develops energy crops that can be grown for use in cellulosic ethanol production and biopower. The company recently announced it will market energy crop seed and traits under the brand name Blade Energy Crops. Because Blade Energy Crops will be the first multi-crop energy seed brand, a great deal of its seed could be used in the biomass program over the next few years. Ceres has scaled up seed production and is taking orders this fall for 2009 planting.

The new lineup includes two switchgrass varieties bred specifically for cellulosic ethanol production: EG 1101 was bred from Alamo switchgrass, and EG 1102's parental variety is Kanlow.

Both varieties provide a 10 to 30% improvement in biomass yield over their parents, Ceres's Rath says. The new varieties have been developed for improved establishment. In addition, they have been shown to work well in both biochemical and thermochemical conversion technologies.

These lowland switchgrass varieties are best adapted to the South and Southeast. Ceres also is working on varieties adapted to more northern locations and is sponsoring research at South Dakota State University to develop improved upland varieties for the northern Great Plains.

Arvid Boe, SDSU plant breeder, notes that switchgrass can compete with conventional crops on semiarid land. Switchgrass can produce relatively large amounts of biomass under both good and poor growing conditions, he says.

Starting this fall, growers will be able to book seed at www.BladeEnergy.com. An agronomic team will be available to answer grower questions. Ceres also is working with Noble Foundation extension agronomists at various universities and independent crop consultants to provide agronomic assistance to growers.

The Noble Foundation in Ardmore, OK, will manage some production-scale demonstration fields of energy crops near Guymon and Maysville, OK, this year. This is in conjunction with an Oklahoma Bioenergy Center program that involves planting more than 1,000 acres to dedicated energy crops.

Abengoa Bioenergy is building a cellulosic ethanol plant in Hugoton, KS, less than 35 miles from Guymon, which will be able to use the program's feedstocks. It is expected to be operational in 2010.

Ceres will provide seed and agronomic expertise for the establishment and management of the demonstration fields. The Idaho National Laboratory, the lead feedstock supply and logistics lab for the U.S. Department of Energy, will provide expertise in harvest, collection and processing of biomass along with Abengoa.

Over the next several months, Ceres will hold grower meetings, focused primarily in areas near small-scale cellulosic biorefineries, including some of the six biorefineries that have been designated to receive Department of Energy funding. They are in Kansas, Florida, California, Iowa and Georgia.

For 2009, Ceres also will offer four high biomass sorghum varieties. ES 5150 and ES 5140 are Sorghum x Sudan grass hybrids, and 5141 BMR and 5142 BMR are brown midrib varieties with low lignin content.

The Sorghum x Sudan grass hybrids yield between 12 and 15 dry tons/acre and the BMR hybrids yield a bit less than that, Rath says. All have been selected for improved yields and high conversion into ethanol.

Still in the Ceres research pipeline are sweet sorghum hybrids, giant miscanthus and short-rotation woody biomass crops. When they are fully developed, the sweet sorghum hybrids will be marketed in sugarcane areas for conversion into ethanol. Ceres is collaborating with Texas A&M on sweet sorghum research.

Ceres's research work on giant miscanthus is still in the early research stages. Because this cane-like grass is vegetatively propagated, the company is working on more cost-effective propagation techniques, Rath says.