Genera identifies switchgrass as starting point

By Holly Jessen | January 18, 2011

Research being conducted in Tennessee to take biomass from the “farm gate to the biorefinery gate” has zeroed in on switchgrass. That’s not to say that switchgrass is the only answer for cellulosic ethanol production, said Kelly Tiller, president and CEO of Genera Energy LLC. It is, however, an excellent starting point to support a large commercial industry, including factors such as field performance and ethanol production. “Switchgrass is ready to go,” she said.

A 21-acre site near Vonore, Tenn., is home to the Genera/DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol demonstration-scale facility, which has been in operation for a year. The demonstration plant is capable of producing up to 250,000 gallons of ethanol yearly. The initial feedstocks were corn cobs and corn stover but the plant will switch to switchgrass this year.

It’s also co-located with the Biomass Innovation Park, which is expected to be complete in the second quarter. The demonstration plant and the biomass park are extremely complimentary, Tiller said. The group is using $5 million in U.S. DOE funds to build a switchgrass bulk-handling system. Although the basic infrastructure of the park is completed there’s room to expand, focusing on innovation. “The park is designed to add new things or try alternatives over time so it will continue to be a work in progress,” she said.


Genera currently has contracts for 6,000 acres of switchgrass planted within a 50-mile radius of the demonstration plant and biomass park. The plantings were established beginning three years ago through the switchgrass farmer incentive program funded by the University of Tennessee Biofuels Initiative. 

The project brought in $70.5 million from the state of Tennessee, about $40.7 of which was used for the “bricks and mortar” portion of the project, such as building the biorefinery. The remainder of the money is being used for farmer incentives and other aspects of the program. Other funding is coming from private partners, such as equipment manufacturers. Tiller said.

In the future, Genera hopes to ramp up to commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol production. “We’re actively in the early stages of developing a project,” Tiller said. The company, established by the University of Tennessee Research Foundation, doesn’t have a specific timeline. It takes several years from project development to operation, she said.