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Potential for Energy Farming with Grasses in North America

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During combustion of plant-based biofuels, the carbon dioxide emitted is considered to be sequestered during the growth cycle of the plant. Carbon emissions are largely neutral except for energy associated with their production and conversion into fuel pellets. The savings in GHG emissions is considerable because pellets (at 5 kg CO2e/GJ) have much lower emissions than coal (96 kg CO2e/GJ) and natural gas (62.13 kg CO2e/GJ). To learn more grass biofuels, view powerpoint presentations on:

Opportunities for Growing, Utilizing, and Marketing Biofuel Pellets
The Use of Switchgrass Biofuel Pellets as a Greenhouse Gas Offset Strategy

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The Potential for Energy Farming with Grasses in North America
The 1.1 billion acres of farmland in North America could be used to create a renewable source if currently viable biofuel production systems were expanded. In most agricultural regions, warm season grasses can be grown for $2-3 USD/GJ. Much of this farmland can collect 100-250 GJ of energy per hectare with existing production technology and plant materials. Efforts have been made to produce power and liquid fuels from this material, but the development strategies appear not to be economically sustainable. Converting this feedstock into a viable energy option suitable for widespread application requires an energy efficient, economical, and convenient energy transformation pathway to meet consumer energy needs.

Of the farmland in North America (932 and 168 million acres in the US and Canada respectively), we estimate that 150 million acres could be dedicated to energy farming without appreciably affecting North America’s food supply. Assuming biomass energy crop yields are 50% higher than the current hay yields, harvested perennial grass yields of 5.9 and 8.1 tonnes/ha in Canada and the US respectively can be expected. By energy farming 130 million acres in the US and 23.4 million acres in Canada, a total production capacity of 424 and 55 million tonnes could be achieved in the two respective countries. Assuming grass fuel pellets contain 18.5 GJ of energy/tonne, 8.9 billion GJ (an energy equivalent of 1.5 billion barrels of oil) could be produced each year from energy crop production on 14% of North American farmland. With U.S. crude oil imports of approximately 3.4 billion barrels per year, the U.S. could displace the equivalent of 39% of its oil imports by growing biofuels on 14% of its farmland.

The most promising regions to develop a grass pellet fuel industry are those where hay production costs are low and heating costs are high due to long winters and high fuel costs. Based on hay prices, land costs, relative winter heat costs, and warm season grass performance data in North America, the best opportunities exist in the states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the provinces of Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec.

An ideal location for a biofuel pellet industry is the province of Manitoba. This largely agricultural province has amongst the lowest hay prices in North America and no indigenous fossil energy reserves. The spread between delivered heat costs of conventional energy sources and hay costs is rapidly growing. In real dollars, long-term hay prices remain flat at $2 USD/GJ ($35 USD/tonne) while delivered heat costs for natural gas, oil and electricity are rising and are now in the $10-13 USD/GJ range. With current pellet production costs estimated to be $2/GJ ($35 USD/tonne) and a conversion efficiency of 80%, delivered heat costs for on-farm and residential grass pellet fuels are projected to be in the $5-7.50 USD/GJ range. There are major opportunities for Manitoba households to switch from electrical heating (used by 32% of households) to biofuel heating systems. Widespread implementation of this energy substitution strategy would enable hydro-rich provinces, such as Manitoba and Quebec, to expand electricity exports into the US market.

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Written by Casey McConnell

April 9, 2008 at 3:55 am

Posted in Bioenergy

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