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
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
"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
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
"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
"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: http://www.ceres.net/
The Governors' Wind Coalition recommendations: http://bit.ly/9MZCDC
For more information on BCAP: http://short.to/1oocw
Chris Clayton can be reached at email@example.com
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