Peeking at ethanol’s future fields

Just as corn ethanol has paved the way for ethanol from corn fiber and corn residue, so too will those feedstocks pave the way for energy crops down the road. The editor's note, written by Tom Bryan, appears in the October issue of EPM.
By Tom Bryan | September 17, 2015

After reporting on dedicated energy crops for more than a decade, I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t experienced occasional moments of skepticism about more than a few nongrain feedstocks. After all, it seems like we’ve been telling the same story about some of these novel biomass inputs for a long time. In fact, I believe it’s been nearly a decade since President George W. Bush mentioned switchgrass in one of his State of the Union addresses. That was an exciting moment for sure, but it was 10 years ago. Where’s switchgrass now? Where’s miscanthus? Where are those insanely large Jerusalem artichokes?

With the exception of an update on artichokes—maybe we’ll cover that next year—our team went looking for answers to these and other questions about biomass ethanol feedstocks this month. What we found refreshed my confidence in dedicated energy crops and elevated my belief in crop residues. Starting with “Feedstocks of the Future,” we learn that planting and harvesting crops like switchgrass, miscanthus and biomass sorghum is, in fact, happening at a somewhat large scale. That’s good news, and we should give the dedicated energy crop community high marks for sticking to it.   

In “Bringing in the Biomass,” we shift our attention from purpose-grown crops to supply chain development. This story educates us on something the ethanol industry’s emergent cellulosic ethanol producers know all too well: Building a biomass supply chain from the ground up is an enormous multi-year challenge. EPM Senior Editor Susanne Retka Schill reports that producers lacking a high degree of certainty about their supply should consider a multifeedstock strategy, if possible. Relying on two or more crops with different harvest windows, for example, can help producers achieve the continuous just-in-time feedstock delivery system they need for scaled success. 

Ultimately, I think dedicated energy crops like switchgrass will find their rightful place in the ethanol industry. Honestly, however, it won’t happen tomorrow. Just as corn ethanol has paved the way for ethanol from corn fiber and corn residue, so too will those feedstocks pave the way for perennial grasses and other energy crops down the road. As for those enormous artichokes, hey, just give us time.

Author: Tom Bryan
President & Editor in Chief