Switchgrass could be the Midwest's next big energy source

By Jeff Caldwell

Posted August 26, 2005, as reported by CropChoice: For better or worse, land that was taken out of production years ago as part of the Conservation Reserve Program will be kicked back into production in the coming years.

How will landowners and farm managers make use of the newly functional ground? If taken back to row crops, the perennial soil quality benefits from CRP grasses may be lost, proving the program's long term gains to be marginal at best.

What if another crop existed, one that might partially maintain the benefits of the Conservation Reserve Program, while at the same time, allow landowners to advance profits on the land that sat idle for years? Decades-worth of study and research that continues today has been brought to fruition in a crop that can successfully be grown in the Midwest and has a well-defined market, yet today lacks some of the legislative support necessary to catapult it to the level of more conventional crops: Switchgrass.

Switchgrass is a perennial warm-season grass native to the rolling prairie hills of southern Iowa and northern Missouri. Long a staple of the grasslands of the area, switchgrass has in the last decade become recognized as having a new function: Energy generation. Ground switchgrass can be burned in a coal-firing energy facility, displacing a small amount of coal used. While in its infancy, this type of energy supplementation may become another way the Midwestern U.S. can play a large role in strengthening the nation's energy independence and security.

Yet the benefits of switchgrass as a primary crop don't hedge completely toward the consumer, and John Sellers Jr., knows this. Sellers has been growing switchgrass, alongside other forage crops like Big Bluestem and Eastern Gamma grass at his southern Iowa farm and ranch in Wayne County, near Corydon, for almost 30 years. Currently in his seventh year as a state soil conservation committee member and Wayne County Soil and Water district commissioner since 1973, Sellers operates 360 acres of his own grassland in addition to managing 1,000 acres for others. To him, switchgrass is a logical crop for his area.

"When looking for what will be the most efficient and best adapted crop to grow in an area, look to what Mother Nature had there to begin with," he says. "In our case in the Midwest, it is tallgrass prairie grasses of which switchgrass was one."

Sellers, also coordinator of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture's Iowa Grassland Agriculture Program, says he recognizes that conservation and farm profitability must go hand-in-hand in order to be successful. He started planting switchgrass not in search of the next big energy source, but because of its practical applications to his operation.

"Switchgrass is highly adaptive. You can grow it from the Rocky Mountains of Canada all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. It was promoted for its wildlife benefits and all of that years ago. I started planting it in 1980 and was just interested in it at first as warm-season grazing and a wildlife habitat, and it kind of went from there," Sellers says. "Then, when switchgrass was recognized as having the best potential for energy, the focus started to shift."

That focus today, at least in southern Iowa, has blossomed into a new use for switchgrass that has fueled a whole new industry's development. Today, a cooperative group of farmers, Sellers among them, is growing switchgrass for utilization to generate energy alongside coal in the Ottumwa Generating Station in Chillicothe, just over 50 miles east of Corydon. The growers comprise the Chariton Valley Biomass Project, part of Chariton Valley Resource Conservation and Development, a U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded system for conservation encompassing Lucas, Wayne, Appanoose and Monroe counties in southern Iowa.

Burning switchgrass for energy

Today, more than 3,000 acres in southern Iowa is planted to switchgrass. The U.S. Department of Energy is working with the Chariton Valley group, providing periodic grant funding for research and development to help determine switchgrass' prospects for more widespread and regular use as an energy crop.

Switchgrass, which is sold through power purchase agreements directly to the energy plant, comprises 2.5 percent of the total resource input at the Ottumwa energy facility. When entering the plant, the grass is debaled and ground, yielding finely chopped dry matter that is injected into boilers much the same way powdered coal is injected in conventional plants.

"It goes into a big blower and it's transported pneumatically up into a boiler, then from its own nozzle, blown into the firebox," Sellers says. "The coal is going in on its own stream, and we're pouring in through our own stream."

To date, Sellers says no decline in the plant's energy efficiency has been observed with co-firing switchgrass and coal.

"We've had experts test every aspect of that facility's operations, and that plant hasn't shown a difference so far," he says. "We don't expect that plant to even know it's there."

At the 700-megawatt energy plant, Sellers says 55,000 3- by 4- by 8-foot square bales must be produced to consistently meet the input quota. Because of the costs associated with growing switchgrass, combined with the low cost of coal, it is a constant challenge to find ways to bolster production efficiency to cost effectively meet energy demands.

"Unfortunately, coal is dirt cheap, and it's going to stay dirt cheap. A baler costs $75,000, and you don't have an electric plant on every street corner. We have to truck it 55 miles from here to the plant," Sellers says. "We've pushed it and applied more nitrogen early in the growing season just to see what the soil is capable of. Four tons per acre is where it cash flows, but we can raise as much as six tons/acre."

Utilizing switchgrass for energy has another avenue for the future: Ethanol. With cellulose ethanol technology on the verge of reaching the mainstream, switchgrass could be an alternative to more conventional ethanol production methods, according to Sellers.

"We've got the cellulose-to-ethanol technologies in place now, so this is what you're going to start seeing spring up if we have some policy that would help a little bit," he says. "The corn people have the policy to support them. They've worked super-hard for it.

"We have seen a lot better net energy gain with a bale of switchgrass than with a bushel of corn, when making ethanol out of it."

Managing switchgrass

Switchgrass as a crop requires atypical management. For optimal output, it is harvested every other year, rather than annually. Even though it is common in CRP fields, switchgrass harvested for energy generation must be a relative monoculture, meaning derived from primarily a single seed type, rather than part of a mixture of grasses. Once the grass reaches maturity in harvest years, it is swathed and baled, much like other forage crops. Sellers says the 3- by 4- by 8-foot bales are used in the Chariton Valley project because of ease of handling and storage. Bales are currently stored in 13 buildings around the Rathbun Lake watershed area that comprises the four counties of Wayne, Lucas, Appanoose and Monroe. One building near the energy facility houses 16,000 bales and is utilized in times when weather prevents hay delivery from more outlying areas.

In terms of soil conservation and preservation, switchgrass is unique in its benefits. Much of Sellers' ground is highly erodible, yet switchgrass flourishes. This is due in part to its "sod roots," which form an interwoven layer of roots that don't penetrate extremely deep in the soil, but form a layer of solely root tissue just beneath the surface. This, in effect, stabilizes ground that might be easily eroded if planted to row crops. For this reason alone, Sellers says the value of switchgrass should be clear.

"The fields have a soil quality that's just sky high. We've got moderate to severely eroded soils from years and years of row cropping, or too short of rotations of full tillage. This is really helping this soil bring itself back," he says. "We're spending millions on soil conservation in this country so we can row crop all the land when we could rotate in switchgrass and accomplish the same thing."

Perhaps the greatest benefit of switchgrass to soil quality comes through its manipulation of nutrients. According to Sellers, switchgrass is a C4 grass, which means nutrients move throughout the plant during different times of the growing season. This culminates with the first killing frost in the fall, when nutrients like phosphorous and potassium move into the roots. As a result, nutrients stay circulating throughout the soil, rather than being removed, like they are with row crops.

"At the time of the killing frost, all the P and K in the plant goes back down to the root. So, if you wait two weeks after a killing frost, almost all of the nutrients have gone back into the roots for the next year," Sellers says. "It makes it extremely sustainable so you don't have the enormous take-out rates that you see, for example, when you cut silage and remove all of it for hay."

Current policy

Even though some say the conservation of natural resources in agriculture is a point of strength of current farm policy, when it comes to switchgrass production, a natural means of soil conservation, current law leaves much to be desired. The coming years will be pivotal for the future of growing switchgrass, as CRP contracts are fulfilled and more of that land will be released back to production. Yet, currently, CRP land must consist of polycultural grasses, meaning a mixture of different types, including switchgrass. The result is a set of requirements that works against the replacement of CRP grasses with a switchgrass monoculture for production.

"Our acres are down because of the farm program, with the renewal of CRP contracts. Guys are having good switchgrass stands, but they're having to tear it out because of CRP," Sellers says. "There are even payment reductions for harvesting it now."

Acres are down, but in the near future, around the time when the new farm bill is scheduled for approval by Congress, the reduction could turn into a landslide because of CRP requirements, like those requiring specific plantings habitats. Instead, Sellers says strict requirements should be abandoned in favor of what works in terms of conservation, sustainability and profitability, all things farmers know a great deal about.

"In 2007, we're going to have a major revolt of farmers who have perfectly good stands of both warm- and cool-season grasses, and they're going to say they've had enough of this, because they don't want to have to spend $200 to $300/acre for some exotic native grass mix that is going to be extremely difficult to establish and manage. The new seeding requirements affect farmers who have contracts expiring in the next few years--more than 1 million acres in 2007 through 2009--and wanting to renew," says Sellers. "A lot of times, you've got a wildlife specialist who lives in town, learning this stuff out of a book, and he has no idea what it takes to establish or manage a stand. I can get folks out here, show them how I can manage these grasses and how I can produce fabulous wildlife habitat."

The net effect of these misguided controls over CRP, Sellers says, are leading to an obvious outcome for him personally.

"I'm going to have to bail out of (CRP)," he says. "I'm just heartsick, because I love CRP, because it's allowing me to have the habitat out here. But, I've also got a farm that I need to make a living ."

Yet, if regulation can turn a corner towards switchgrass, and a safety net can be established under switchgrass growers, something Sellers says is the first step in fostering a healthier switchgrass industry, the crop's vast potential could be realized.

"This stuff does have a place, and is going to become more of a player, but our policy is just getting more and more difficult all the time. Some people just can't see the big picture. There are a few senators, especially in the upper Midwest, who see the potential for this, but we're not getting all the support, policy-wise, we need at this time," Sellers says. "It is a potential gold mine. But, how long can we wait? I'm going to be 60 in a few days. I can wait a little while longer. I'm still an innovator, and I'll still try anything, but how long do you wait before you just throw up your hands and look at other alternatives?"

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