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Amber Waves of…Switchgrass? How about Sorghum?

October 28, 2011 - 5:09pm


As the fall harvest comes to an end in Marshall County, Kansas, farmers are already planning what crops they’ll be planting next year.  As they do, food might not be the only thing on their mind.  According to the US Billion-Ton Update, a study sponsored by the Energy Department,  by increasing production of energy crops and using more agricultural residues, including the non-food portion of plant material, this county is well positioned to benefit from a developing bioenergy industry.  The study looked at the potential for the development of biomass -- or plant material -- across the country, estimating how much could be produced for bioenergy or bioproducts after meeting demands for food, feed, and fiber.

The Energy Department and industry partners are working together to scale up new technologies to turn these biomass resources into renewable transportation fuels and other products. As the market develops, there are several ways increased energy crop production can occur: some energy crops, like switchgrass or sorghum, can be grown on farmland that is currently degraded or underused; in other cases, energy crops can be grown on land made available as commodity crop yields improve and less land is needed to grow them.  Energy crop yields could also be increased through the development of new energy crop varieties that contain greater amounts of energy per acre.  In addition to growing more and better energy crops, farmers can also collect agricultural residues and sell them to bioenergy producers.

Why does this matter?  Farmers are playing an increasingly important role in America’s energy economy.  You’ve probably heard about ethanol, a transportation fuel made from plant material, but this plant material, known as biomass, can also be used to produce electricity, a variety of other fuels, and many other products that we currently get from petroleum.  Biomass has many advantages, including that it can be produced in large quantities right here in the U.S.  A strong U.S. biomass industry is an engine for job creation and replacing fossil fuels with biofuels grown in the U.S. reduces our dependence on imported oil.  As if that weren’t incentive enough, the use of biofuels also has the potential to greatly reduce net greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector.

Take a look at the map above.  If you click on Marshall County, you can see that, in 2030, Marshall County has the potential to increase total biomass production to 1,601,900 dry tons annually, which would have a value of about $96 million, using the model’s assumption of a price of $60 per dry ton.  This energy-rich harvest includes 254,100 dry tons of annual energy crops, like sorghum; 96,900 dry tons of agricultural residues, like corn stover or wheat straw; 720,500 dry tons of woody crops; and 530,400 dry tons of perennial grasses, like switchgrass.  That’s quite a haul!

Thanks to a great new tool called the Bioenergy Knowledge Discovery Framework (KDF), you can see for yourself where there is potential for increased biomass production nationwide.  The Bioenergy KDF contains the data, assumptions, models, and maps that went into the US Billion-Ton Update, allowing you to explore the bioenergy economy under different assumptions, such as a lower price per ton for biomass, or various crop yields.  The map that we’ve made for this article, for example, shows 19 years of growth in energy crops across the US, assuming prices of $60/ton and the baseline level of increase in crop yields. In addition to the Billion-Ton Update, the Bioenergy KDF contains a great many other models, maps, and datasets covering a variety of topics in bioenergy.

This is a big deal for Marshall County, so why don’t you find your own county on the map above and see what energy crops might be in your future?