Louisiana can gain from move to biofuels

Richard Bogren  |  3/1/2008 3:55:39 AM

News Release Distributed 02/29/08

MONROE – As competition between food and bioenergy drives up prices of corn, soybeans and other farm commodities, Louisiana has untapped land that could be put into production for alternative crops, according to agricultural industry observers.

Louisiana can take advantage of these resources to participate effectively in the move toward growing new plants as raw materials – or feedstocks – to produce biofuels, said Kelsey Short, director of agriculture, forestry and food industries with Louisiana Economic Development.

“Alternative feedstocks place Louisiana in a strong competitive position,” Short told a gathering of nearly 200 agricultural producers and representatives of industry, government and higher education for the 2008 AgOutlook Conference Feb. 25-27 here.

The conference on agriculture and renewable energy opportunities was sponsored by the LSU AgCenter, Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, Louisiana Farm Bureau and U.S. Department of Agriculture agencies USDA Rural Development and Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The purpose of the conference was “bringing factions of agriculture together and discussing important topics,” said Dr. Bill Richardson, LSU AgCenter chancellor.

“Energy is the new gold exchange,” said Mike Strain, commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry (LDAF).

A key to renewable energy is the development of transportation fuels from plants – generally referred to as biomass – to replace gasoline and petroleum-based diesel to satisfy the country’s thirst for fuel.

“Energy is the No. 1 challenge facing humanity. The foundation of what we do is energy,” said Thomas J. King Jr., manager of electric delivery technologies program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Energy policies have joined the farm bill as important factors in U.S. agriculture, said Dr. Abner Womack, senior economics with the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri.

Global economies and energy will be important to U.S. agriculture as the farm economy reacts to energy policies, Womack said.

“Easy oil runs out about 2025,” he said. Then, fossil fuel suppliers will begin turning to tar sands in Canada and coal and oil shale in the United States.

“We have plenty of energy in front of us, but it’s going to cost more to get,” Womack said. “The secondary level of energy becomes more expensive.”

Womack called the energy bill “far more important than any farm bill we’ll ever pass.”

The energy bill mandates biofuels replace fossil fuels for transportation gasoline and diesel fuel from petroleum sources – 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2022, built up over time. This includes 15 billion gallons of ethanol, produced almost exclusively from corn, one billion gallons of biodiesel, mostly produced from soybeans, and 21 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol, produced from various grasses and woody plants.

“We have never seen this industry before,” Womack said of renewable fuels.

The farm economy is already reacting, as U.S. corn production increased by 15 million acres in one year in 2007.

“A maturing ethanol industry is just around the corner,” Womack said. “Everything you buy is going up. Cash rent is going up. Land prices are going up. But real crop income is going down.”

To counter the pressure on diverting corn and soybeans from animal feeds for energy production, the experts see new plants and plant materials becoming important in the energy arena.

“We have a finite amount of farmland in the United States,” said Dr. Bill Batchelor, head of the agricultural and biological engineering department at Mississippi State University. “We’re reaching a breaking point between food and energy on our agricultural land.”

The southeastern United States has a vast amount of woody biomass, Batchelor said. Prices for pulpwood are down and the pulp and paper industries are down. But the plants that provide those products also could be used for energy production.

Woody biomass is a great potential for Louisiana as a fuel source, according to Buck Vandersteen, executive director of the Louisiana Forestry Association.

Between 30 and 60 tons per acre of biomass are left on the ground following a typical timber harvest, Vandersteen said. But this could be a valuable feedstock for a plant that produces energy.

Marginal agricultural land that won’t produce row crops profitably can grow a variety of grasses and woody plants – generally called woody biomass – for conversion into energy, the experts said.

Batchelor pointed out that woody biomass can be converted to energy in three ways.

– Cellulosic ethanol can be produced by enzymatic fermentation, but the process is quite expensive.

– Fast pyrolysis heats wood under oxygen-limited conditions, liquefying the wood into bio-oil that can be processed in existing petroleum refineries.

– Synthetic gas – called syngas – is created by old technology, which burns wood and captures the “exhaust” gasses that can be used to generate electricity or be processed into chemicals and gasoline.

In addition to woody plants, the industry is looking at other plants to replace corn and soybeans, which have traditionally been used to produce ethanol and biodiesel in the United States.

Biodiesel production was 75 million gallons in 2005 and 250 million gallons in 2006, according to Dr. Kurt Guidry, an economist with the LSU AgCenter. The United States currently has the capacity to produce 2.24 billions of biodiesel, and another 1.23 billion gallons of capacity are being built.

“The cost of soybeans as feedstock accounts for 75-80 percent of the cost of biodiesel production,” Guidry said. But because of the current high prices for soybeans, U.S. capacity is underutilized and biodiesel accounts for less than one percent of the national diesel fuel market.

New bio-based fuels will be available, said Dr. Mark Zappi, dean of the College of Engineering and professor of chemical engineering at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Diesel can be manufactured from other sources, such as sunflower oil, algae and animal fats.

“Bio-based diesel products are here to stay,” he said.

The federal mandate for biofuel production equates to about 100 million acres, including 13 million acres for biodiesel, said Dr. Don Boquet, an agronomist with the LSU AgCenter’s Macon Ridge Research Station in Winnsboro.

Soybeans can be converted into biodiesel at a rate of about 80 gallons per acre, and cotton can be converted at about 40 gallons per acre, Boquet said.

Non-traditional crops for biodiesel in Louisiana include sunflowers, canola and peanuts, the original fuel for diesel engines, he said.

“By changing crops, producers can get more energy per acre, lower input costs per acre and improve crop rotations,” Boquet said.

He pointed out that canola oil can produce twice the energy per acre as soybeans, and because it’s a cool-weather crop, it could be double-cropped in Louisiana. In addition, sunflowers produce twice the oil per acre and peanuts produce three times the oil per acre as soybeans. Chinese tallow, in fact, could produce 1,000 gallons of biodiesel per acre – more than 10 times the biodiesel from an acre of soybeans.

Potential ethanol crops include sweet sorghum, sugarcane and sweet potatoes, which could produce three to four times the ethanol per acre as corn.

“Louisiana has the land, resources and crops and the ability to efficiently and economically produce biofuel crops,” Boquet said.

Louisiana’s advantages for producing biofuels include a mild climate, abundant sunshine, plentiful rain, fertile soils and an agricultural infrastructure, said Dr. Gary Breitenbeck, a soil microbiologist with the LSU AgCenter.

In addition, Louisiana has a significant amount of marginal lands that would be better suited to producing energy crops than food crops.

The United States has 4,200 potential feedstocks for bio-based fuels, said Chris Cassidy, western and pacific region energy coordinator for USDA. They include grasses, soft woody plants, cornstalks and other crop residues.

“The second and third generation processes are underway for converting biomass to fuels,” Cassidy said. The focus is on co-products – the substances other than fuels that come from processing plant material into fuels. One example is glycerin, a byproduct of biodiesel from soybeans, which can be used as an ingredient in soaps and cosmetics as well as in industrial lubricants.

Cassidy said the industry needs to focus on the cash streams from co-products to assure biorefineries have a positive cash flow.

“Co-products can be a waste expense without plans for developing markets for them,” he said.

Ultimately, bio-based fuels will provide jobs and economic infusions to rural areas because production plants need to be close to the sources of their feedstocks, such as woody biomass, because they are bulky and expensive to transport long distances.

This will mean new businesses in local communities, said Dr. Alan Barefield, associate director of the Southern Rural Development center at Mississippi State University.

“Local ownership is key to economic development,” he said. “For the maximum impact on a community, it needs to be locally owned and use local resources so the money it generates goes back to the local economy.”

This, he said, leads to rural development policy issues. Governments have to address who will fill the jobs? How will they be trained? And how will local owners compete with corporate giants?


Writer: Rick Bogren at (225) 578-5839 or rbogren@agcenter.lsu.edu

Rate This Article:

Have a question or comment about the information on this page?

Innovate . Educate . Improve Lives

The LSU AgCenter and the LSU College of Agriculture