The Federal Government is attempting to jump start a “cellulosic drop-in” fuel industry by offering 9 million dollar grants to cooperating universities. How interested should farmers be?
First, let’s define this term “cellulosic drop-in fuel”. Cellulosic means we are not using starchy corn as the raw product to make fuel, but plants. Drop-in means what we produce can be used in place of gasoline without changing the way the engine is made or set up. In other words, it is a seamless replacement for gasoline, better than ethanol.
Second, let’s discuss how competitive cellulosic drop-in fuels are with other “advanced” or “renewable” energies. Hydro energy you don’t hear much about, but electric generation by moving water is the least expensive and its use will grow by leaps and bounds in the future.
Wind energy is growing by leaps and bounds and in the right situation is economically viable. Solar energy is the same, even though more government subsidy is allocated to its adoption than to wind or hydro. Nuclear is the other “read to go” technology that is cost competitive, depending on government regulation, red tape and safety requirements.
The “forgotten” renewable fuel is ethanol from corn. Keep in mind that 1/10 of the gasoline burned today is ethanol. Keep in mind that one out of every two bushels of corn produced is used to produce ethanol. This renewable fuel is no longer classed as an advanced fuel but is subsidized, even though not at the level of advanced fuels.
Cellulosic drop-in fuel and clean coal technology are hopes for the future. Their development is highly subsidized by government (our) money, but neither the technology nor the economic viability for these technologies to become mainstream is assured.
However, direct burning of biofuel to make electricity will happen in Ohio, in 2012, right next door, near Wheeling, WV. At the Berger Plant of FirstEnergy, near the town of Sunnyside, in Belmont County, where I-70 crosses into WV, biomass will first be burned to generate electricity.
The reason for burning biomass instead of coal not that biomass is less expensive to make electricity. The reason is that this older plant is no longer allowed to pollute the air to the extent it is. FirstEnergy has decided that with government subsidies and incentives, burning biofuels is more cost effective than upgrading the antipollution equipment and burning coal.
At first, 80% of that burned will be wood without bark or with very thin bark, called “white wood”. The remaining 20% will be mostly perennial grasses, mainly switchgrass and mithcanthus. Switchgrass can be seeded, but yields less biomass. Mithcanthus must be established by “plugging” rhizomes or pieces of its large roots but yields more biomass.
So fewer nutrients will be removed from the field, harvest will be during the winter after the plants die naturally and weathering occurs. Of course, transport, processing and burning will occur year around. FirstEnergy is hoping to pellet the biomass, but if pelleting is too expensive, may try to figure out how to burn directly.