USDA recently announced that they’ve promised $99 million in loan guarantees for the Chemtex ethanol refinery in Sampson County, NC. Several types of grass for biostock are currently being researched around the state by Ron Gehl, Assistant Professor in the Soil Science Dept at NC State:
“When we talk about perennial grasses for bio fuels we are looking at a few different things. We want a crop that has low inputs, in terms of herbicides and nutrients, and time, we want a crop that grows rapidly and gives a good yield. A few that we are looking at closely are giant Miscanthus, which is a sterile non invasive form. We are also looking at switch grass, a native grass. There are some other grasses that are being developed but we really want to minimize invasive risk.”
NC Ag Commissioner Steve Troxler says that when it comes to growing biofuel stock, regardless of the actual plant, he’d like to see swine effluent spray fields that are government mandated utilized for biofuel stock:
“We have a lot of competition for crop land in North Carolina. With the high prices of soybeans, corn, wheat and other crops, the competition has intensified. We wanted to look at the possibility of using spray fields as an alternative that could be used for growing bio fuel feed stocks. This takes the question out of food vs. fuel. This has been an effort to start a discussion to see what is feasible and what the science says.”
In other plants in Europe, Chemtex utilizes Arundo donax, a cane-like perennial grass as feed stock. Chemtex reportedly is pushing for this type of fuel stock for the Sampson County plant, but there is little research data available right now on Arundo in North Carolina.
While Chemtex reportedly has been able to rely on up to 20 dry tons per acre of Arundo grass in Italy, Gehl says that in eastern North Carolina, where most of the spray fields are, he’s yet to see that kind of yield:
“One of the reasons a lot of industry really likes Arundo is because of its reputation for a very large yield. However in our research in NC, we are still down in the low teens. We will see if time will bring that up.”
These plots date back to 2008.
Arundo has a well-earned reputation of being a ‘weed of mass destruction’ especially on the west coast where it was imported decades ago as an erosion control method. It’s been reported that more than $70 million has been spent in southern California in eradication efforts, making little headway. Arundo has been known to be extremely invasive near water, and eastern North Carolina is where most of the spray fields are, and most of the water, too. Gehl advocates for definitive research:
“It’s important for everyone to be aware of these issues before things get too far down the road. We need to really understand the misconceptions with new crops and address all of the questions.”