Could switchgrass become a game changer in the northeastern U.S., where the cost of home heating oil makes for a costly winter year after year? Agricultural Research Service (ARS) researcher Paul Adler led a team who recently completed a study suggesting switchgrass pellets could become a cost effective and environmentally friendly renewable alternative to conventional fuel oil.
Clean energy advocates have touted switchgrass as a feedstock for ethanol for years, and bio-refineries are increasingly churning out such biofuels, or technically cellulosic ethanol. But the biggest issue facing scaled up production of switchgrass-based ethanol is its fuel- and cost-efficiency. Switchgrass pellets, on the other hand, could offer an alternative to home heating oil that not only offers lower greenhouse gas emissions, but could save consumers money–even if the price of conventional sources of fuel fell as much as one-third from current levels.
Adler and his team ran several life-cycle assessments of coal, natural gas, fuel oil and switchgrass and evaluated their performance in forms such as briquettes, cubes and pellets. The research team also compared the various emissions from each source and forms, including carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane.
As a result Adler et al. found switchgrass resulted in potentially significant emissions reductions and cost savings. A switch from natural gas to switchgrass pellets led to a decrease of 158 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent, or CO2e, per gigajoule of heat in residences; a comparison of the same pellets to petroleum found a reduction of 146 pounds of CO2e per gigajoule.
And with a conclusion sure to motivate a bevy of fact-checking exercises and additional research, Adler’s team determined that switchgrass pellets would result in sizable financial savings, at three-fourths the cost of conventional sources of heating oil: $21.36 per gigajoule compared to $28.22 for fuel oil. In sum, should switchgrass cultivation and pellet manufacturing scale, consumers in the Northeast could save up to $3.9 billion annually and cute CO2 emissions five percent.
A few points must be made before we cut all ties with Venezuela and plant switchgrass on as much land as possible. Clean Technica’s Tina Casey (who is also a regular contributor to Triple Pundit) reminds us any cost savings would be from replacing dated heating equipment, and switchgrass would be a much more viable replacement for heating oil than the conversion of it into a gasoline alternative.
And while switchgrass does not necessarily replace food crops, many commenters discussing this study within a Think Progress article expressed concern over the impact land devoted to switchgrass could have on biodiversity and the food supply. One important lesson to take from this ARS study is that various regions of the world can benefit from different sources of renewable fuels. Not one form of clean energy is a one-sized-fits-all-package, as any rational clean energy advocate would remind us. Now the trick is to get beyond the results on paper and in the lab and take the first steps in sourcing, distribution and sales. These wispy grasses could also lend an economic lift to some economically challenged areas in the Northeast and elsewhere in the U.S.
Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is the editor of GreenGoPost.com and frequently writes about business sustainability strategy. Leon also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Sustainable Brands, Inhabitat and Earth911. He will speak at San Francisco State University on climate change, the media and business on Wednesday, April 3. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).
[Image credit: Wikipedia (SEWilco)]