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Daniel J. Graeber

Daniel J. Graeber

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Time to Switch to Switchgrass

Time to Switch to Switchgrass

Scientists in the United States announced plans to use remote sensing data to map grasslands in and around Nebraska in order to determine what areas are best suited for cellulosic biofuel derived from switchgrass. USGS officials said it would take much of the "guesswork" out of deciding where to plant crops for the use of biofuels on U.S. grasslands. With what could be considered standard forms of alternative energy -- wind and solar power -- gaining momentum, most of the guesswork for biofuels may be in its future.

Expensive gasoline does strange things to U.S. consumers. It prompts them to do everything from investing in a hybrid vehicle to trading in their gas-powered lawnmowers for old-fashioned reel mowers. With gasoline hovering near historic ties, scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey announced plans to use satellite data to find the best places in the Platte River Basin in and around Nebraska to assess where it's best to produce switchgrass for biofuels.

Switchgrass is a good crop in that it grows fast, tall and taps into water not readily available to other plants, including most food crops. Because of this, it's relatively easy to turn into a fuel source. The White House last year announced plans for up to $510 million in investments to back biofuels for military transportation and the Navy said it wanted half of its fuel to come from renewable sources by 2020. In May, an $80 million project was launched in Missouri to make jet fuel from switchgrass.

USGS scientists have developed a method for mapping grasslands that could be well suited for growing biofuel crops. This boils down to good and basic natural resource management. But just as scientists note that just because it's green doesn’t' make it clean, switchgrass has its problems. Critics complain that it actually requires more energy from chemicals, heat and electricity to produce a viable fuel from switchgrass. Furthermore, replacing conventional gasoline with biofuels produced from switchgrass would actually give off more of some types of greenhouse gasses.

Production of biofuels produced from perennial crops like switchgrass can offset some of the emissions tied to fossil fuels. Agricultural considerations, however, could lead to higher levels of greenhouse gases like methane and nitrous oxide. Meanwhile, the Navy is reportedly spending four times as much for biofuels than it would on conventional jet fuel. Reports of the $1,000 hammer aside, that's hardly a wise investment.

The EPA announced this week it was examining a 15-percent ethanol mix for gasoline engines. Presumably, that's part of President Obama's trumpeted "all-of-the-above" energy strategy, but even his predecessor George W. Bush found something to love in switchgrass. Much of the ethanol produced in the United States comes from food crops so moving to switchgrass seems like a logical step. It's too expensive now, but as technology grows, so too will the Nebraska prairies used for biofuels.

By. Daniel J. Graeber of Oilprice.com




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