USDA explores potential for biofuel crops at airports

By Kris Bevill | March 29, 2012

Researchers at the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service recently conducted a study to explore the potential for lands surrounding airports to be used for alternative energy production. The study specifically evaluated the possibility for solar panel and wind turbine placement and the establishment of energy crops, such as switchgrass, which could be used to produce cellulosic ethanol.

The APHIS researchers found that, while the Federal Aviation Administration imposes certain restrictions as to how lands surrounding airports can be utilized, it would be possible to convert land at airports to alternative energy production. In fact, some of the qualities of land at airports mesh quite well with the ideal qualities of land for alternative energy production.  In the APHIS report, titled “Airports Offer Unrealized Potential for Alternative Energy Production,” the researchers noted that prime alternative energy locations would offer large expanses of idle land with little presence of wildlife, and be mostly unsuitable for conservation initiatives but would not compete with human food production. Airports are one of the few places in the U.S. where the reduction of wildlife abundance and habitat quality are actually encouraged, according to the report, and they are also areas where food crop cultivation is generally forbidden.

“Some available grasslands at airports have the potential to spur the type of innovation we need to build American-made, homegrown biofuels and biobased products that will help to break our dependence on foreign oil and move our nation toward a clean energy economy,” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in a news release announcing the study’s findings. “Converting airport grasslands to biofuel, solar or wind production not only provides more environmentally sound alternative energy sources for our country, but may also increase revenue for airports and reduce the local abundance of potentially hazardous wildlife to aircraft.” Vilsack said establishing alternative energy sources at airports could be particularly beneficial for rural communities, where airport properties often include expansive grasslands that could be converted to biofuel or renewable energy production.

According to the report, there are 15,079 airports in the U.S. For grassland area estimations however, APHIS researchers limited the number of airports included in the study to the 2,915 contiguous U.S. airports which are included in the National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems. The researchers calculated that there are approximately 3,306 square kilometers of available grassland within those properties, noting that the actual total amount is likely much larger because the estimate does not include the 12,000 small U.S. airports or military airfields.

While the amount of available land at any given airport would not be enough to be service all of the feedstock needs of a biofuel production facility, the researchers asserted that airport lands could easily be incorporated into a regional supply base for biofuel plants. In a comparison of the median grassland area at U.S. airports with media farm size in the U.S., APHIS researchers found that only 10 percent of the states have median farm sizes larger than airport grasslands, which suggests that airport grasslands could indeed play a role in producing energy crops for conversion to biofuel. Further, using Indiana as an example, the researchers determined that an airport with 205 hectares of grassland—the median size of grasslands at certified U.S. airports—switchgrass could be used to produce nearly 300,000 gallons of ethanol annually.

While FAA restrictions and guidelines provide some limitations to the use of airport lands for alternative energy production, the USDA said the FAA is committed to working with airports interested in pursuing those types of land changes. It could be possible to establish energy crops that have low-wildlife strike risks compared to existing airport landcover, for example, to alleviate wildlife concerns. Additionally, it was suggested that some airport land could be converted now to energy crops such as switchgrass and used for livestock grazing until the demand for cellulosic biofuel feedstocks accelerates.

“With thoughtful planning regarding the uncertainties and limitations associated with the establishment of alternative energy production at airports, converting airport grasslands to these land uses could maintain existing benefits and provide increased revenue, reductions of hazardous wildlife and more environmentally-sound alternative energy,” the researchers said in the report. “There is no single answer for meeting global energy demands or addressing environmental consequences of energy development. To bring us one step closer to a solution, we should explore alternative-energy practices and land-use patterns at airports to identify useful options and develop effective and integrated energy, wildlife, and air-safety policies.”