Mon Mar 22, 2010 09:10 AM CDT
Putting Energy Into Biomass 03/22 09:10 Seed Developer Sees Perennial Crops on Cusp of Growth Headquartered just north of Los Angeles, Ceres Inc., has been investing in biotechnology traits and gene-marker-assisted breeding for dedicated energy crops while waiting for the bioenergy market to grow. By Chris Clayton DTN Ag Policy Editor THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (DTN) -- A growing national investment in renewable energy could help spur increased interest in energy crops, including the opportunity to improve breeding and potentially market biotech traits in crops such as switchgrass and energy sorghum. While farmers are still waiting for the commercial viability of cellulosic ethanol, energy crops and biomass for burning are starting to draw more interest, sparked by a hodge-podge of federal initiatives and energy companies looking for low-cost alternatives to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Power companies in states with renewable energy standards are already looking for farmers who may be able to harvest biomass. "Coal is going to be a major driver for our industry," said Gary Koppenjan, Ceres corporate communications manager. "There is a lot of focus on co-firing biomass at power plants." At a lab in Thousand Oaks, Ceres is testing germplasm for a variety of traits, ranging from temperature stress tolerances to qualities that increase biomass yield or break down easier for cellulosic conversion. Last November, Ceres also received a $5 million advanced research grant from the Department of Energy to work on high-energy, low-input traits for bioenergy crops. Ceres markets a variety of non-biotech switchgrass and sorghum seeds under the brand Blade Energy Crops. "What we are trying to do is increase the energy return and biomass yield per acre, as well as the convertibility per acre," said Cory Christensen, director of product management. "We want to minimize the energy costs going into the field and maximize the output going out." Ceres is working aggressively on biotech varieties of energy crops. Part of that effort includes developing the tools needed to confine pollen and contain crop production. Ceres' biotech varieties of switchgrass and sorghum right now do not have commercial approval. Company officials declined to say when they might market a biotech energy crop, but it's a long-term project, Coppenjan said. Ceres started in 1997 at UCLA where its founders were part of a team that sequenced the plant genome for sorghum. Such sequencing has helped identify the traits that improve tolerance levels and energy production. Ceres now works on advanced plant breeding by studying various genes for sorghum varieties and switchgrass. Using such a program, Ceres is researching genes a plant may turn off or turn on under different conditions, such as genes that help it grow in cold weather or extreme heat. The company concentrates on creating more BTUs or tons per acre. Federal initiatives are driving more biomass development. They range from USDA's Biomass Crop Assistance Program to unspent stimulus funds and demands that Congress create a national renewable energy standard, as well as the potential of capturing some market from acres that could come out of the Conservation Reserve Program over the next several years. Frank Hardimon, Ceres' director of sales, manned a booth last month at the National Farm Machinery Show in Louisville, Ky., where Ceres was one of the few companies touting bioenergy crop production. Hardimon, who is based in Illinois, has been working with farmers to plant their marginal ground to energy sorghum or switchgrass. What started out as casual inquiries a year or two ago has translated into more farmers working on legitimate biomass projects. "We are seeing a lot more interest in the high-biomass sorghum being an annual crop," Hardimon said. "This year, a few acres have grown into thousands of acres." Tony Brannon, who farms in Tennessee and is dean of the agriculture college at Murray State University, has worked on a 25-farmer biomass pilot project examining different crop opportunities for farmers. He planted different varieties of Ceres switchgrass on a grant project that was grown for electric power. Some of the switchgrass was also used for highway median groundcover. Farmers are still looking for possible long-term markets, he said. "We're looking at some long-term pelleting projects," Brannon said. "I've heard word of some potential industry relocation that would need some switchgrass. It's obviously just a developing process and market." Hardimon said he's also talking to farmers in Southern states who have learned they aren't going to get the yield out of corn that Midwest farmers get. However, switchgrass production is more advantageous in the South, just because the sheer volume of biomass will be roughly 20 percent to 40 percent higher. "Not that we want to displace the corn acres, but we see a lot of potential for these acres going into fields growing less than 100 bushels per acre" of corn, Hardimon said. Beyond developing varieties of energy crops, the company also tests for the post-harvest effects of the crops as well, such as burning biomass varieties from different locations around the country and then testing the mineral content. Those ashes then factor into whether a site is viable or the type of adjustments a company may need to make to prevent saturating an area with a particular mineral. "It helps companies decide how to site a refinery and the agronomics that have to go into that location," Christensen said. CLOSELY WATCHING LEGISLATION, MARKETS Ceres staff is closely watching the development of the Biomass Crop Assistance Program. BCAP has two elements, one of which pays producers up to a $45 per ton matching payment for delivering biomass to an approved facility. The other provision, which has not been implemented, would also pay farmers up to 75 percent of the production cost to establish a perennial energy crop, as well as an annual incentive payment for growing dedicated energy crops. BCAP is generating more interest in switchgrass, though most farmers are just beginning to learn about the program. "BCAP is at the top of our priority right now," said Anna Rath, Ceres' vice president of commercial development. More energy projects using biomass could crop up over the next couple of years as more funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act are spent. The stimulus bill last year set aside $90 billion for renewable energy, but as of February, about two-thirds of that money was still unspent. A small slice of that money going to biomass would have a major impact on spurring energy crops. Bioenergy projects also would get a boost if Congress were to pass a national renewable energy standard. Earlier this week, 29 governors from the Governors' Wind Energy Coalition detailed the potential impact a national RES could have in expanding industries not only in wind power, but also other renewables such as biomass and solar. The U.S. Senate has been gridlocked over whether to pass such an energy bill or a more comprehensive climate bill as the House did last year that would have provisions for a renewable energy standard. Another market being watched by bioenergy crop developers involves land that could come out of the Conservation Reserve Program. The CRP program has nearly 22 million acres scheduled to expire between this fall and 2013. While millions of acres could be renewed or replaced, it's likely landowners and farmers will consider converting some of that land to energy production, especially as more biomass facilities and projects are developed. "There will be a lot of interest in these crops," Hardimon said. Ceres' website: The Governors' Wind Coalition recommendations: For more information on BCAP: Chris Clayton can be reached at (AG/CZ) Copyright 2010 DTN/The Progressive Farmer, A Telvent Brand. All rights reserved.