Southeast US offers huge energy crop potential

By Kris Bevill | June 29, 2011

The U.S. Southeast is ripe for energy crop development, according to several panelists who spoke during a session devoted to next-generation feedstock strategies June 28 at the International Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo in Indianapolis.

Bob Randle, vice president of business development at Tennessee-based Genera Energy LLC, said he’s “a corn guy from way back when,” but realizes corn ethanol is peaking out and areas of the country that might not be ideal for corn production offer perfect conditions for energy crops. Genera Energy has been exploring energy crop production, primarily switchgrass, on marginal lands since its inception several years ago and has reached the conclusion that the Southeast will be key to the build out of energy crop supplies.

Since its formation in 2008, Genera has benefited from funding providing by the University of Tennessee’s Biofuels Initiative, but July 1 marks the beginning of its final year of state funding, Randle said. The company is currently forming its commercial strategy and will seek to be a feedstock supplier for ventures throughout the Southeast. The company is partnered with DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol LLC for its demonstration-scale facility in Vonore, Tenn., which uses switchgrass grown on a 6,000-acre plot in the state, but Randle said Genera does not plan to limit its commercial strategy to switchgrass only.

Energy crop seed developer Ceres Inc. is also focusing on the Southeast for energy crop development and has been working on switchgrass projects as well as several sorghum varieties, according to Frank Hardimon, Ceres’ director of sales. The company is also one of the biggest breeders of miscanthus, but has ruled out its commercialization potential for the present time, due to the high cost of harvest, he said. Ceres opened two new research facilities in the Southeast devoted to sweet sorghum earlier this year. Sorghum also presents harvest and storage challenges due to its tremendous height, he said, but the company is exploring harvest methods similar to those used for sugarcane that could effectively handle the crop’s height and diameter.

Phil Madsen, president of Katzen International Inc., said the Southeast has the potential to double the entire U.S. production if a type of sweet potato currently used by producers in Malaysia is grown there. He offered an alternative view toward next-generation biofuels during his presentation, suggesting that new sugar and starch feedstock sources, such as the sweet potato variety, be used with existing technologies and strategies as a bridge between first-generation and second-generation biofuels. His company refers to this as Generation 1.5 and believes it will be a necessary filler to move the industry from first-generation to second-generation biofuels production. “Cellulosic conversion will succeed in special situations and by 2020 we will see less than 500 million gallons worldwide,” he said. “We believe at Katzen that new sugar and starch sources, by 2030, using fuel-specific agriculture, will have greater than 50 billion gallons of production using conventional, known technology."