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Any type of hay can be used to produce energy, and the equipment for hay production is already available.

by David Bransby

Electricity and Liquid Fuels Can Be Produced 
from Hay, Wood and Manure

The term bioenergy probably means little to most of us. However, commercialization of bioenergy may have more potential than many other alternatives for alleviating the economic, national security, and environmental problems that face America today. It also offers great opportunities for agriculture and forestry in Alabama. This is the first in a series of articles that will provide information about opportunities to produce bioenergy in our state. 
Bioenergy is energy in the form of electricity (green power, or biopower) and liquid fuels (such as ethanol) produced from biomass. The term biomass means organic material. It includes hay, wood and animal manure, which are all abundant in the South. Typically, biomass does not refer to traditional commodities like grain. So production of ethanol from corn will not be discussed in these articles. 

If a material is used to produce energy, it is referred to as an energy feedstock. Of course, while biomass can be used as an energy feedstock, right now most of our energy feedstocks are fossil fuels, which include coal, oil and natural gas. However, combustion of fossil fuels results in serious pollution, and we are currently dependent on foreign sources for over half our oil supply. This is not good. One of our aims, therefore, should be to reduce our use of fossil fuels or at least to avoid increased use of these sources of energy.

Alabama currently has an excess supply of wood that could be used as an energy feedstock.

My Introduction to Bioenergy

I emigrated from South Africa in 1987 to accept an appointment as a Professor of Forage and Livestock Management at Auburn University. On my arrival in Auburn the Dean of Agriculture told me that the university had received a major grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, through Oak Ridge National Laboratory. This grant was for screening crops that could be used to produce energy. However, the two professors who had been awarded the grant had moved, so the dean wanted me to assume responsibility for this research.

I told the dean that I was not qualified to do this work. However, he assured me that this was a new field of research in which there were no experts and the work needed to be done. I must admit, too, that for a second I thought this was a crazy idea. But then I fell back on my professional training: as a researcher I had not only been taught to follow strict scientific procedure, but also to keep an open mind at all times and to adapt to change. 

So I accepted the responsibility for the energy crop research at Auburn, in addition to teaching and conducting research in forage and livestock management. I methodically set about educating myself on energy crops, bioenergy, and U.S. agriculture. During this process I became a very proud and patriotic naturalized American. And after all, since I was born and raised in the southern hemisphere, I am also a true Southerner, albeit in a somewhat different context to those who were born and raised in the southern United States.

Losses from hurricanes (such as in this stand of pines near Atmore, AL, that was damaged by Hurricane Ivan) could be reduced if we had energy plants that used biomass as an energy feedstock.

Farm Programs

Over the 18 years since I started research with energy crops I have become convinced that bioenergy can make a significant contribution to our economy and help preserve our environment. I have also developed a good understanding of many problems that face our country as a whole, and especially agriculture and forestry in the South. In addition, I have studied attempts to alleviate some of these problems, such as implementation of farm programs to partially offset the negative impacts of over-producing our major commodities (corn, cotton, soybeans, wheat and livestock). 

A few years ago I conducted a survey among agricultural and forest landowners in Alabama to investigate their interest in growing switchgrass for energy. One of the questions in the survey asked whether government incentives would be expected and over 70% of the respondents said “No!” Some wrote very strong additional comments, like “Keep the government out of this!” Here it must be emphasized that I do not feel existing farm programs should be terminated without providing some alternative. What I am suggesting is that we should be working harder to develop new crops, products and markets to achieve independence.

New Crops, Products 
and Markets

It might sound crazy to say this, but efficiency is our biggest downfall. Yes, U.S. farmers are among the most innovative people in the world, and their remarkable efficiency has resulted in the supply of their commodities outstripping the demand. The strong dollar has hurt us by restricting the size of international markets. Even with the recent weakening of our currency, any change for the better is not likely to be big enough to absorb our production capability.

We live in a rapidly changing world. Those who adapt to change will prosper, and those who do not will be left behind. I fear that other countries, like Brazil, are doing better at this than we are. I have already pointed out that what we really need is new crops, new uses for existing crops, and new markets. But what and when was the last new crop we saw in the U.S.? Soybeans in the ‘60s! That was over 40 years ago. 

Sadly, most of the research conducted by the USDA is aimed primarily at making us more efficient at producing existing commodities, rather than developing those new crops, products and markets that we need. So it is aggravating the over-supply problem instead of alleviating it. Increasing efficiency and yield makes sense only if demand for our commodities exceeds supply. However, right now this is not the case and no change in this trend is expected in the foreseeable future.

Studies conducted at the University of Tennessee have shown that a new biomass market for energy would result in some land that is currently in traditional crops being switched to energy crops. One result of this would be less over-production of traditional crops. In turn, this would lead to higher prices for these crops, less costly farm programs, and greater net income for farmers as a result of the new market for biomass. So it would be a win-win-win situation for farmers, the government and taxpayers. This message needs to get through to our elected officials in both state and federal governments, and they need to make some changes soon.

Biomass Resources in Alabama

Alabama is definitely a biomass rich state. According to the Department of Energy we could easily generate enough power from biomass to meet all our needs for residential electricity. That’s a lot of energy, but if we really put our minds to it we could do even better.

We do not have those marvelous soils of the Mid-West, and therefore cannot compete well in grain production. However, our long summer growing season makes us superior in the production of a wide range of perennial grasses that could serve as excellent energy feedstocks. In total, we already have over 4 million acres in grass, with tall fescue, bahiagrass and bermudagrass being the most abundant. All the equipment needed to harvest and supply this material to energy plants is also available. While most of the land in grass is currently being used to graze beef cattle, portions of it could be diverted at very short notice to produce hay for energy if an attractive biomass feedstock market were developed.

Another huge and growing biomass resource in Alabama is wood. We are blessed with an enviable capability in forest production, and our forest inventory is increasing due to the crisis in the pulpwood industry. For example, relatively recent pulp mill closures in the Mobile area have resulted in the disappearance of a market for over 4 million tons of wood worth more than $100 million annually. This trend is resulting in depressed pulpwood prices and struggling rural economies. Current predictions suggest that it will continue. Energy plants that used wood as fuel could provide an alternative market for at least some of this wood. Furthermore, if we had energy plants that processed wood, our losses from events like Hurricane Ivan would certainly be reduced.

Finally, broiler litter is a third very major biomass resource that could be used to generate energy in Alabama. Broiler production in the state generates over 1.5 million tons of litter per year. Safe disposal of this material is becoming a major environmental concern which could have serious consequences for the broiler industry, an industry vitally important to the economy of our state. Therefore, use of broiler litter to produce energy would also reduce land application of litter and alleviate some environmental concerns.

Future articles in this series will describe how we can use biomass resources in Alabama to produce energy. 



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Date Last Updated January, 2006