The 2012 Census of Agriculture shows a doubling of on-farm renewable energy production since 2007.
According to the census data released by USDA today, there were 57,299 farms that produced on-farm renewable energy in 2012, more than double the 23,451 in 2007. By far the biggest was solar panels, used on over 36,000 farms. Geoexchange systems and wind turbines each were used on more than 9,000 farms.
For renewable fuels, biodiesel was produced on 4,099 farms and ethanol on 2,397. Small hydro systems were used on about 1300 farms and methane digesters on 537.
The census reveals there are now 3.28 million farmers operating 2.1 million farms on 914.5 million acres of farmland across the United States. Those numbers are all lower than 2007 when the census reported 3.18 million farmers, 2.2 million farms and 922 million acres. The top 5 states for agricultural sales were California ($42.6 billion); Iowa ($30.8 billion); Texas ($25.4 billion); Nebraska ($23.1 billion); and Minnesota ($21.3 billion). Corn and soybean acres topped 50 percent of all harvested acres for the first time.
Two federal agencies joined the biofuels industry last week in seriously questioning the results of a University of Nebraska study that claims negative greenhouse gas emissions impacts in using corn stover for ethanol production.
A statement by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman Liz Purchia about the report noted problems with “hypothetical assumption that 100 percent of corn stover in a field is harvested” which she calls “an extremely unlikely scenario that is inconsistent with recommended agricultural practices. As such, it does not provide useful information relevant to the lifecycle GHG emissions from corn stover ethanol. EPA’s lifecycle analysis assumes up to 50 percent corn stover harvest. EPA selected this assumption based on data in the literature and in consultation with agronomy experts at USDA to reflect current agricultural practices.”
During a forum on climate change right after the study hit the headlines last week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack also pointed out that it is based on a false premise. “The study started with an assumption about the way corn stover would be removed from the land. The problem with the assumption is no farmer in the country would actually take that much crop residue,” Vilsack said. “It’s not what’s happening on the ground. If you make the wrong assumption, you’re going to come up with the wrong conclusions.”
Work done by Dr. Douglas Karlen with the USDA Agricultural Research Service was cited several times in the UNL study. In response to questions from POET-DSM, which is using corn stover as feedstock at a plant in Iowa, Karlen said the study “makes unrealistic assumptions and uses citations out of context to reinforce the authors’ viewpoint.”
According to Dr. Karlen, the research fails to differentiate between responsible biomass removal and “excessive” biomass removal, projecting a removal rate of approximately 75% across the entire Corn Belt.
“Harvesting 75% of all corn stover produced in the 10 Corn Belt states is unrealistic, far greater than any projections made by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in their projections for developing a sustainable bioenergy industry, and would certainly result in the depletion of soil organic matter.”
U.S.Department of Agriculture (USDA) researchers are getting closer to developing a system that will help farmers make their own energy on the farm or produce biofuels for commercial purposes. This article from the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) says scientists have found a way to simplify the pyrolysis processes for bio-oil.
These findings by ARS scientists Charles Mullen and Akwasi Boateng promote the USDA priority of finding new bioenergy sources.
Fast pyrolysis is the process of rapidly heating biomass from wood, plants and other carbon-based materials at high temperatures without oxygen. Using pyrolysis to break down tough feedstocks produces three things: biochar, a gas, and bio-oils that are refined to make “green” gasoline.
The bio-oils are high in oxygen, making them acidic and unstable, but the oxygen can be removed by adding catalysts during pyrolysis. Although this adds to production costs and complicates the process, the resulting bio-oil is more suitable for use in existing energy infrastructure systems as a “drop-in” transportation fuel that can be used as a substitute for conventional fuels.
The article goes on to point out that bio-oils made from oak and switchgrass by the new process had considerably higher energy content than those produced by conventional fast pyrolysis. Oak bio-oil’s energy content was about one-third higher and contained about two-thirds of the energy contained in gasoline. Switchgrass did even better with an energy content that was 42 percent higher, slightly less than three-fourths of the energy content of gasoline.
In honor of Earth Day today, the U.S. Forest Service is seeking proposals that expand wood energy use and support responsible forest management. This news release says the service is also offering a Wood Energy Financial App to help business leaders see a positive bottom line for these efforts.
“USDA through the Forest Service is supporting development of wood energy projects that promote sound forest management, expand regional economies, and create new jobs,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “These efforts, part of the Obama Administration’s ‘all of the above’ energy strategy, create opportunities for wood energy products to enter the marketplace.”
“Building stronger markets for innovative wood products supports sustainable forestry, reduces wildfire risk, and creates energy savings for rural America,” said Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell.
Under the Forest Service’s Wood-to-Energy Grant program, about $2.8 million will be made available to help successful applicants complete the engineering design work needed to apply for public or private loans for construction and long-term financing of wood energy facilities. Another $1.7 million from the Statewide Wood Energy Team cooperative agreement program will help public-private teams make advancements in wood energy.
The Wood Energy Financial App that allows users to do a simple and quick analysis to see if wood energy is a viable alternative for their community or small business. You can dowmload the app here.
USDA Rural Business-Cooperative Service Administrator Lillian Salerno went on a three-state Midwest tour last week to highlight USDA investments that are helping expand business opportunities in the bio-economy, including biofuels.
“Creating jobs and expanding economic opportunity for rural small businesses are top priorities for the Obama Administration,” said Salerno, who visited companies in Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. “The new Farm Bill expands the potential for economic growth in rural America by maintaining momentum for the emerging bio-based industry and the more than 3,000 bio-based companies across the country.”
Salerno’s tour started with a visit to Quad County Corn Processors near Galva, Iowa where they are working on a process to turn corn kernel fibers into cellulosic ethanol and as a result boost the plant’s ethanol production. “It’s a co-op, so all the farmers around there have a vested interest in making this processing unit work,” she said. The company has received nearly $22 million in USDA Rural Development loan guarantees since it opened 13 years ago.
This year’s corn plantings are expected to be down this year, but growers say there will be plenty of stockpiles for all needs, including ethanol. The latest U.S. Department of Agriculture figures show that American farmers expect to plant 3.7 million fewer acres of corn this year, down four percent from 2013. But the National Corn Growers Association says, don’t worry, there are plenty of stocks going into the year, and it would still be the fifth-largest U.S. corn acreage planted.
“In 2013, U.S. farmers produced a record crop abundant enough to meet all needs and provide an ample carry over into 2014,” National Corn Growers Association President Martin Barbre said. “While it is still early in the season and many factors may change the reality on the ground as planting progresses, the public can rest assured that bountiful stockpiles and adequate plantings will ensure our corn security for the year to come.”
NCGA says the plantings will yield 13.37 billion bushels, and corn stocks stand at more than 7 billion bushels, up 30 percent from the same time last year.
Expected big plantings of corn and soybeans underscore the need for a strong Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS). New estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) show a possible record amount of soybeans expected to be planted this year and the fifth largest corn acreage to be planted as well. The Iowa Renewable Fuels Association (IRFA) says these factors show why a strong and growing RFS is needed this year.
“The past eight years were prosperous for agriculture because the RFS was allowed to act as a sponge, soaking up additional corn and soybeans when needed,” stated IRFA Executive Director Monte Shaw. “The vast amount of corn and soybeans expected to be planted in 2014 demonstrates the importance of a strong and growing RFS. If the EPA’s proposal to essentially gut the RFS is allowed to become final, we could see huge carryovers, crop prices plummet below the cost of production, and family farms placed in jeopardy.”
Nearly 92 million acres is expected to be dedicated to corn this year and a record 81.5 million acres for soybeans, a six percent increase from last year.
There are lots of activities for National Agriculture Day going on today in Washington DC, including a big celebration unveiling a statue of Dr. Norman Borlaug in the Capitol, but Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack still took time to meet with members of the American Coalition for Ethanol in town this week to visit Congressional offices
“The country needs a robust renewable fuel industry,” said Vilsack. “It provides choice for consumers and less cost gas at the pump. It helps to create hundreds of thousands of jobs which is important for the economy. It stabilizes farm income, it’s better for the environment, and it makes us a safer nation because we’re less reliant on others for our energy and fuel sources. So we need to continue to have a robust commitment to this industry, we need to expand it and grow it.” Brief interview with Secretary Vilsack after ACE visit
The secretary spoke to the more than 80 ethanol industry about what USDA is doing to achieve that goal, including finding creative ways to increase higher ethanol blend pumps, promoting exports of ethanol to Japan, India and China, and continuing to work towards encouraging use of higher blends in this country.
2014 ACE Biofuels Beltway March photo album
The biggest portion of money recently paid out for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Advanced Biofuel Payment Program went to biodiesel operations, indicating that green fuel is the leading advanced biofuel in the U.S. Biodiesel Magazine reports that about $40 million of the $60 million paid out went to biodiesel production. USDA officials say the entire $60 million announced last week shows the the Obama Administration’s commitment to support an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy.
“The Bioenergy Program for Advanced Biofuels is building the foundation for a clean energy economy and protecting our environment while making America less dependent on foreign and fossil fuels and increasing rural economic growth,” said Paco Valentin, USDA Rural Development State Director.
Through this program and others at USDA, the department is working to support the research, investment and infrastructure necessary to build a robust and lasting biofuels industry that creates jobs and broadens the range of feedstocks used to produce renewable fuel. More than 300 producers in 47 states have received $279 million in payments since the program’s inception. It has supported the production of more than 4 billion gallons of advanced biofuel and the equivalent of more than 40 billion kilowatt hours of electric energy.
The funding was first established with the 2008 Farm Bill and reauthorized in the recently signed 2014 Farm Bill.
Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack says his discussions with his counterpart at the Environmental Protection Agency don’t focus on the message that biodiesel and ethanol advocates are already pushing: abandoning the current proposal that would cut the amount of biofuels mixed into the Nation’s fuel supply.
“I’m looking for ways to help this industry, regardless of what EPA does,” Vilsack told a group of reporters gathered at Commodity Classic, the annual meeting of corn, soybean, wheat and sorghum growers in San Antonio. While pointing out that he has been a long-time supporter of biofuels, he said it doesn’t make sense to repeat what EPA administrator Gina McCarthy is already hearing in the thousands of comments her agency has received. Vilsack believes a great way forward is marketing ethanol and biodiesel as exports. “Our team has put together a plan to expand trade promotion on biofuels by including biofuels folks on a new trip to China,” as well as planned pitches to India and Japan.
Vilsack added they can also address infrastructure issues to make sure that is not a barrier to getting more biofuels into the system. He sees making sure biodiesel and ethanol are successful as matters of national security importance, environmental concern, and economic interest. He just wants to make sure his Cabinet colleague has all the information he can provide her.
“Bottom line is: we’re going to continue to help this industry as best we can, advocate for it, and trust that EPA at the end of the day makes the right set of decisions.”