Thursday, May 03, 2007

Minnesota Legislature Considers Subsidies to State of the Art Bioenergy Crop (a.k.a. Grass )

Senator Kubly from Granite Falls, Minnesota proposed a great bill on ethanol policy this year. The bill is very responsive to recent research at the University of Minnesota conducted by David Tilman. See David Tilman et al., Carbon-Negative Biofuels from Low-Input High-Diversity Grassland Biomass, 314 Science 1598 (Dec. 8, 2006). According to at least one environmentalist/lobbiest, all of the good parts of the bill have been gutted, but the bill is worth discussing nonetheless.

First of all, Tilman found that mixtures of grasses grown on degraded land (hereinafter grass, Tilman grass, grass a la Tilman, or any other reference to grass) with no applications of water or pesticides and minimal fertilization can provide greater energy than corn ethanol or pretty much any other feedstock. On top of that, the roots sequester more carbon than is used to produce them. Wow! What this means is that we all have been working way too hard to produce bioenergy crops. Instead, we should just plant some native grasses and ignore them completely until harvest. Furthermore, this research means that monoculture is a horrible way to produce bioenergy crops. Tilman found that the energy potential increased logarithmically with the number of species planted.

The implications of this research are tremendous. First of all, Tilman grass can be grown on degraded land. This helps with the food security issue raised by turning corn into fuel. We have tons of degraded and abandoned agricultural land around the world. Furthermore, Tilman grass blows corn ethanol out of the water for potential to stabilize global carbon dioxide levels.
Tilman estimates that we could eliminate 15% of global carbon dioxide emissions if we used all of the degraded land to grow grass. Moreover, without the pesticide and fertilizer inputs, water quality would improve. If we planted enough of it, we might even be able to save a few Chesapeake Bay oysters and shrink the Dead Zone. Finally, without need for much irrigation, this crop could be grown in semi-arid locations without threatening water resources.

Tilman's article leaves me confused on one point. He estimates that grass converted to gasoline and diesel synfuels via integrated gasification and combined cycle technology with Fischer-Tropsch hydrocarbon synthesis (IGCC-FT) will yield significantly more energy than grass converted to cellulosic ethanol. From a policy perspective this is troubling because no one is talking about IGCC-FT and I wonder why. Is it because IGCC-FT produces "gasoline" and not "ethanol"? That would be incredibly stupid, so I hope not. If anyone can enlighten me on this point, I would be delighted.

Now back to Senator Kubly. His bill is great because it takes this cutting edge research and applies it. He proposed graduated subsidies for producers of alternative biofuel feedstock with the highest payments going to native grasses alla Tilman. He also proposed a parallel payment to cellulosic ethanol producers.

Beyond the subsidies, the bill contains a few provisions that should help farmers get started planting Tilman grass and other high potential bioenergy crops. Kubly proposed funding for applied research and technical assistance, since Tilman et al. are the only people with experience planting Tilman grass (although it does sound easy). Come to think of it, maybe the U could sell seeds on QVC. A salesperson could do a really snazzy demo showing how simple bioenergy crops are to grow. That might really change the demographics of the American farming community, depending on who watches. It might even bring some young people back to rural America, either that or a lot of people who own ginsu knives and diamante jewels.

Back on topic, the Kubly bill contains a proposal for easement payments for bioenergy crops, in particular Tilman grass. This would allow farmers to begin planting the grass without taking on any risk. Zero risk is probably the only way to convince farmers to plant an unproven crop when they could be planting corn. If one or two people make a profit off of their easement lands, the word will spread. I think this easement program might have more potential than the CRP program because it would help to launch a crop with profit potential, rather than conservation.

There is one main problem with Kubly's bill. There is no market demand for Tilman grass yet, so what a farmer would do with their crop is beyond me. (At least if the government buys it and dumps it, flooding the market with grass shouldn't depress the economies of foreign countries.) Kubly does attempt to remedy this market problem by subsidizing plants that make the cellulosic ethanol from grass, but with a $250 million price tag someone with deeper pockets will need to get on board as well.


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