Energy Crop Production Looks Good in Tennessee

Joanna Schroeder

The University of Tennessee Biofuels Initiative (UTBI) is closely watching how more than 1,000 acres of newly planted varieties of switchgrass will compare to current varieties. This project is part of a U.S. DOE project that was developed to study improved efficiencies in bioenergy production from biomass. The scale of the acreage will allow for assessment of the environmental and economic sustainability of the different varieties. Farmers and researchers should gain useful information on seed stock performance including disease and drought resistance, tolerance to humidity, and other agronomic variables.

The project team is headed by UT researchers Dr. Sam Jackson and Dr. Nicole Labbe who are also working with Ceres and Dupont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol (DDCE). Farmers from nine east Tennessee counties, along with members of the research team, have planted more than 1,000 acres of switchgrass varieties that have been developed by Ceres. The results will be compared with 1,000 acres of a more traditional variety of switchgrass known as “Alamo”.  These acres have been established on private farms as part of the UTBI farmer incentive program that now totals nearly 6,000 acres.

Once the switchgrass is harvested, it will be turned into cellulosic ethanol at Genera Energy/DDCE’s demonstration-scale biorefinery located in Vonore, Tenn. Genera Energy is hosting a groundbreaking of the facility located in the Tennessee’s Biomass Innovation Park on July 29, 2010.

According to Jackson, the project will have four phases: comparing the large-scale production of the different varieties of the energy crop, analyzing the chemical and structural characteristics of the varieties, evaluating pre-processing techniques at Genera’s Biomass Innovation Park in Vonore, and measuring the ethanol yield of the various varieties through the demonstration-scale biorefinery.

“These are the largest acreages to be planted for growth comparisons on private farms in the nation,” Jackson said. “The size of the project is necessary to adequately test and demonstrate the supply chain with local farm producers. We hope to prove the practicality of producing improved varieties of dedicated energy crops while providing a hands-on opportunity for farmers to be engaged in the development of a new biobased energy industry,” he said.

The UTBI estimates that Tennessee farmers could sustainably produce enough switchgrass by 2025 to produce more than a billion gallons of ethanol annually on some 1 million acres without displacing the production of food and fiber crops.

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