Demonstrating sustainability

What I find most interesting in the BCAP announcement on ZeaChem's woody feedstock partner is the sustainability angle – finding a niche where a cellulosic feedstock helps achieve sustainability goals.
By Susanne Retka Schill | August 01, 2011

Another round of BCAP funding has been announced with a couple of interesting projects. Kris wrote about the ZeaChem proposal this past week, and has promised a story with more details on Abengoa’s project for this week.

I found the ZeaChem article interesting. They’ve signed a long-term feedstock agreement with a tree farm that owns 35,000 acres in the Columbia River Basin.  The tree farm wants to intercrop hybrid poplar trees with other tree species – essentially ensuring a cash crop while the slower-growing, higher-value tree species develop. Nice strategy. ZeaChem is constructing a demonstration plant in Boardman and planning a 25 MMgy biochemical and cellulosic ethanol plant at the same location.

What I find most interesting is the sustainability angle – finding a niche where a cellulosic feedstock helps achieve sustainability goals.

I wrote a few years back about the Tennessee folks developing a big switchgrass project, which is being realized with Genera Energy’s partnership with Dupont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol. The folks at the University of Tennessee have had their targets set on switchgrass for some time. Switchgrass would serve as a cash crop for sloped land unsuitable for row crops and as a replacement for tobacco. They’ve done switchgrass trials on varieties and agronomic practices. They’ve put together a program to build acres, knowing a critical mass is needed before industry utilizing the resource can be successful. They actively recruited a partner for cellulosic ethanol production, and when that began to look like it would take longer than expected, started looking for alternative users of switchgrass. Tennessee really wants to see switchgrass succeed.

I wonder if the corn industry would benefit from taking a similar active, and visible, role in supporting viable perennial cellulosic feedstock crops targeted at areas where intensive corn production can create problems -- vulnerable slopes or soils susceptible for leaching. A lot of the focus in corn country has been on utilizing corn stover, and being sure that can be done without jeopardizing soil health from too much residue removal, which is good. But I wonder if there wouldn’t be some really good PR benefits in Big Corn taking a proactive stance on promoting perennial cellulosic feedstocks in vulnerable areas.

I’ve been wondering if many of the anti-ethanol drummers are really anti-corn. They fear a strong ethanol industry means more corn, and with it, more potential environmental problems with chemicals, fertilizer run off, soil erosion. Many people in agriculture are struggling with how to help urbanites understand the industry. I was going to say “help their city cousins understand,” but that is the problem. Many people in cities today have no country cousins. They’ve never been on a farm, and more easily buy into the horror stories about industrial farming. There certainly are examples of poor practices, but those are overwhelmed by the number of responsible individuals working in agriculture, on the farm and in the industries that serve agriculture, including ethanol. There certainly is little understanding about the dynamics of agriculture. The Corn Belt is the Corn Belt for a reason, and corn isn’t likely to take hold everywhere, because other crops are a better fit.

There are many facets to the anti-ethanol phenomena. I’m thinking the anti-farmer, anti-corn, is one. Certainly, anti-ethanol isn’t universal. Holly was at a meeting this week and visited with a Canadian who was surprised about the anti-ethanol campaigns raging here. They hear none of it in Canada. Figuring out why that is might help us figure out how to better respond.