Report urges cellulosic ethanol growth over grain-based fuel

By Jessica Ebert | August 27, 2007
According to a USDA report, U.S. farmers will likely grow 12 million more acres of corn this year than in 2006, including about 250,000 more acres in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania, which lie within the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The increased inputs of fertilizers to this new cropland could lead to an additional 8 to 16 million pounds of nitrogen and 800,000 to 1.6 million pounds of phosphorus lost to the bay region.

The report released in mid-July summarized the findings and recommendations reached by agriculture and environmental scientists at a conference convened by the Mid-Atlantic Regional Water Program, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the USDA-ARS Beltsville Agricultural Research Center.

To meet the nation's renewable energy goals while still protecting water resources, the authors of the report, titled "Biofuels and Water Quality: Meeting the Challenge and Protecting the Environment," provide policy and research recommendations aimed at spurring the growth of the cellulosic ethanol industry instead of the grain-based ethanol industry. "It is currently not in the farmer's economic self-interest to grow biomass rather than grain," the report said. "Technologies, infrastructure and markets must be developed and coordinated for biomass."

One policy initiative that scientists and economists have been discussing would create a program similar to the Conservation Reserve Program. This "Biomass Reserve Program" would provide incentives for farmers who set aside land for the growth of perennial grasses like switchgrass, a promising bioenergy feedstock. Likewise, incentives could be available to farmers for the start-up costs associated with establishing and producing perennial grasses and for the implementation of nutrient management protocols. In addition, the authors suggest that a grant system, like the Conservation Innovation Grants program, be established to fund innovative research into biomass-to-ethanol process technologies, and efficient management, harvesting, storage and handling practices. In particular, federal funding could be provided for the development of gasification and pyrolysis technologies for the conversion of waste-to-energy biofuels.