Trying to make Pennsylvania a hotbed of biofuels

The Northeast has traditionally been home to coal and gas mining. But the federal government’s just put up a $10 million grant to jumpstart regional biofuel production. The project’s called NEWBio. Universities, agencies and industries will focus on grasses to produce energy. Backers say NEWBio could give rural communities access to the emerging biofuel sector and slow down climate change. 

 “The reason we stopped here is we have switchgrass on this side of the road,” said Calvin Ernst, the owner of Ernst Seeds in Meadville, Pennsylvania, near Erie.

He was taking about two dozen farmers, students and state government workers on a tour of his switchgrass fields and biomass processing plant, one of four demonstration sites for NEWBio.

Ernst has grown switchgrass for three decades.  He sold the seeds but left the rest of the 10-foot tall grass to rot in the field. Now the stalks are mowed and will be packaged into big round bales this autumn. 

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The bales will be hauled a couple miles up the road to Ernst’s new plant, where the dried perennial grass will be ground up, some moisture added and then formed into bullet-sized pellets.

Right now the pellets are sold mainly for heating homes and greenhouses. As bioenergy refineries open in the region, the grasses can be made into liquid fuel for cars and jets or used as a feedstock for electricity generators. Ernst plant manager Dan Arnett says his company’s harvest and production process is giving NEWBio information you can’t get in a research lab.

“Unless you look at something and see how it can transfer into industry and into the private sector, you might be spinning your wheels a little,” said Arnett.

Industrial trials are helpful because NEWBio is studying the “second generation” of biomass materials: hardy perennial grasses and shrubs rather than food crops such as corn or soy. Since the grasses are perennial, farmers don’t have to replant them every year.  And unlike corn, grasses aren’t eaten by animals or people. The Northeast is prime real estate for this new kind of production, according to Michael Jacobson, forest economist with Penn State, a NEWBio partner.

“The Northeast is obviously highly populated but also there’s a lot of unused what we call marginal idle land where there’s opportunity to grow these energy crops,” said Jacobson.

The USDA estimates seven million acres in the Northeast have been idle for decades because the soil stays too wet for food crops or because of past industrial use such as mining.

Even if farmers devote their unused land to perennial grasses, there’s still the reality of going head-to-head in the marketplace with cheap, widely available fossil fuels. 

“We are ground zero for natural gas and so its very difficult to compete with those kinds of markets,” observed Jacobson.  “In fact a few of our industry partners are still on board but they want to make  sure we can get the right prices for these feedstocks or they’re going to go to gas or other sources.”

To make their grasses competitive with fossil fuels, NEWBio’s researchers need to figure some things out. For instance, how to get more usable organic matter out of the grasses and shrubs, and cut the cost of processing and transportation. By 2016, the consortium hopes to have nearly 100,000 acres of warm-season grasses planted and harvested and 1,000 farmers trained in managing perennial bioenergy crops.

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