The U.S. Department of Agriculture has put up a grant of $10 million to establish a new biofuel consortium for the northeastern U.S., which could provide distressed rural communities from New England to the Ohio River with new opportunities to participate in the emerging biofuel sector. Called NEWBio for Northeast Woody/Warm-season Biomass Consortium, the initiative aims at kickstarting the entire biofuel chain from foundational research to the end user.
Though the “breadbasket” states in other regions have some well-established advantages for growing biofuel crops, the NEWBio initiative describes some characteristics of the Northeast that could enable it to support a strong biofuel industry. That would present a more sustainable path to economic revival for rural communities in decline, compared to the risks and impacts of the natural gas fracking boom that has hit the Northeast in recent years.
Biofuel crops for the northeast
According to NEWBio, there are more than 2.8 million hectares of surplus or idle agricultural land in the northeast that could be used for biofuel crop production, without cutting into existing supplies of food or animal feed crops. In addition, there are about 0.5 hectares of disturbed mining lands that could be reclaimed for biofuel crops (a hectare is the metric equivalent of 2.471 acres).
Much of this land is sloped and rocky, making it good pasturage for livestock operations but not optimal for growing conventional biofuel crops. That’s especially true for mining lands where the soil has been stressed from previous industrial activity.
However, the Northeastern soil and climate are suitable for the new generation of biofuel crops, which focuses on hardy, perennial grasses and shrubs rather than tender annuals.
That includes switchgrass and miscanthus as well as shrub willow. Shrub willow biofuel is already the focus of a Cornell University research and demonstration project, which aims to show its viability as a home-grown fuel or even a cash crop for local farmers.
Advantages of the northeast for biofuel production
Though the immense, sprawling farmlands in other parts of the country have an advantage of scale, the infrastructure of the Northeastern states could work extremely well with a decentralized, distributed-energy model for biofuel crop production, refining and sales.
Among the advantages that NEWBio notes are the region’s relatively high population, its mature transportation infrastructure, and its existing fuel distribution network.
NEWBio is also careful to note the human factor in the Northeast, which can draw upon a rich store of technological know-how and a demonstrated interest in alternative fuels by consumers.
Building a successful biofuel industry from the ground up
According to NEWBio, “failure to listen and respond to stakeholders is often a key cause of failure in bioenergy projects around the world,”and the organization is determined to avoid those mistakes.”
An entire program within NEWBio is dedicated to human systems, which creates a foundational role for identifying stakeholder needs and responding to local issues. As NEWBio describes it, ”How people view the biomass industry, their aims and objectives in managing agriculture and natural resources, and the incentives and constraints that they face are all critical issues.”
In that regard, it’s worth noting that academic, government and private-sector partners are all essential to NEWBio’s mission. In particular, NEWBio will be able to leverage the long-running USDA Cooperative Extension system to engage local farmers and other stakeholders.
Led by Penn State University, NEWBio includes Cornell University, the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry, West Virginia University, Delaware State University, Ohio State University, Rutgers University, USDA’s Eastern Regional Research Center, and the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Idaho National Laboratory along with dozens of other stakeholder organizations.
Key partners in the private sector include the harvesting equipment company Case New Holland along with the biofuel companies Praxair, American Refining Group, Primus Green Energy, and Mascoma.
NEWBio’s advisory board also includes representatives from the global agricultural equipment company CNH America LLC, Aloterra Energy, Double A Willow and Ernst Conservation Seeds.
That adds up to a massive public policy initiative that aims to support beneficial new businesses and sustainable, healthy growth for communities.
On the downside, certain members of Congress have actively lobbied against federal support for this kind of long term planning, which necessarily involves “picking energy winners.”
However, when the fracking boom goes bust, which it is already on the verge of doing in some areas, hopefully NEWBio will be around to help pick up the pieces.
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