Positive Attributes of Grass Bioenergy
As someone mentioned, “Isn’t this just a scheme to use energy (oil) to make nitrogen fertilizer to grow grass to make energy?” It could be just that, but no reason why it has to be so.
Enough grass must be produced per acre to justify the harvesting investment and transport to a processing facility. Enough grass also must be produced in total within the shipping radius of the processing facility to meet the feedstock needs of the facility. There is no reason why you have to adopt the federal strategy that maximum biomass yield per acre is an absolute requirement. New York State has a considerable acreage of unused and underutilized agricultural land much of which is reverting to forest. It is possible to use a one-harvest strategy that does not involve any commercial N fertilization and produce a harvestable yield with long-term sustainability. For the majority of dairy farms in NY with manure management concerns, biomass fields would provide the perfect outlet for excess manure nutrients.
- Greenhouse gas emissions.
REAP-Canada has estimated that switchgrass pellet energy produces up to 90% less greenhouse gases than fossil fuels. The highest fossil energy input to the switchgrass pellet energy system is N fertilizer. Production of lower yields of cool-season grasses with little or no N fertilizer might not be as economically profitable, but would be very close to greenhouse gas neutral. Grass production with dairy manure as the sole fertilizer will look good from both an environmental and economic perspective.
- Soil erosion and nutrient leaching.
A long-term or permanent sod crop is ideal for erosion control. Since nutrient input into the system is not maximized, nutrient leaching also will be minimized.
- Wildlife nesting.
A one-harvest system for cool-season grasses with harvesting in mid to late summer is compatible with bird nesting. Unharvested regrowth also provides some wildlife cover through the winter and early spring. When combined with acreage of switchgrass overwintered and harvested the following spring, both short and tall grass cover are provided throughout the winter and early spring for species that prefer one or the other.
- Species diversity.
Monocultures often work best for mechanically-harvested forage crops for dairy cattle where high quality is essential, because species do not reach optimum forage quality at the same time. Grass biomass, on the other hand, is harvested after most all species have fully matured. It does not matter that they reach maturity at different times. This system works well for grass meadows with a wide range of species. If a new crop is established, a mixture of grasses can be sown. This is especially useful on fields with variable conditions; some species will be more productive on high ground while others will survive poorly-drained conditions.
- Pesticide use.
No need to control insects or plant diseases in these grass stands. Cool-season grasses in the US have few pest problems, and species diversity discourages major pest outbreaks. Also no need for weed control. Weeds are an equivalent energy source to cool-season grasses.
- Open spaces.
A major concern in NY is the accelerating loss of open spaces. There are vast acreages of abandoned lands reverting to woody species. There is no incentive to mow these lands once a year to maintain open fields. A grass biofuel system is perfect for maintaining the open spaces. It also keeps the land in an agricultural condition, should our food or feed needs require reclamation of the land for this use. It is difficult to reclaim land for agriculture that has undergone forest succession.
- Nutrient management on farms.
The primary agricultural industry in NY is dairy farming. Environmentally-sound nutrient management is challenging when large animal production is concentrated. Grass biomass land that can be used for dairy manure application will help distribute these nutrients in a manner that is environmentally acceptable.
- Organic production practices.
With essentially no need for insect, disease or weed management, grass biofuel is ideally suited to organic production practices. Since grass biofuel does not need the energy-consuming tillage practices required for organic weed control, grass biofuel production is more sustainable than such practices.
New farms will not be created that are dedicated to biomass crop production, the returns most likely will not be high enough to justify a strictly biomass operation. Biomass production will need to operate within existing farm enterprises and will not likely be a high priority crop since it will not be the primary income generator for the farm. With these constraints in mind, grass biofuel production can fit into the schedule of any farm operation.
- Energy Security.
Soaring energy prices have the potential to put many farmers out of business. On-farm energy production and consumption helps with on-farm energy security. Gasifiers will be available in the future for on-farm production of heat and electricity.
- Land suitability.
Grass biomass can be grown on all agricultural soil types.
- Production equipment.
All necessary equipment for grass biofuel production is currently available on most farms.
- Timeliness of harvest.
This crop has a very wide harvest window in the summer. It is possible to avoid all peak periods when other farm activities require priority; grass biofuel will not conflict with the primary agricultural activities on the farm.
- Level of management.
Grass biofuel requires minimum management expertise. It is as well-suited to small farms as it is to large farming operations, and also works for all levels of management intensity.
- Economic feasibility.
Although we have not yet calculated estimates for NY, based on Canadian studies we believe that a grass biofuel system could flourish without any government subsidies. Funding to get the industry jump-started would be helpful.
- Manure management.
Grass biofuel production is perfectly compatible with dairy and other livestock farming. Manure nutrients can be applied in the spring or anytime following grass harvest, as long as the grass is still actively growing.
- Compatibility with other biomass activities.
Grass biofuel production will complement other solid biomass production activities on the farm. It is easy to find a niche for grass on the farm that does not compete for land or labor resources with other bioenergy options.
- Market diversification.
Grass pellets could be marketed for horse bedding, as an alternative to the energy market. Straw pellets are very desirable as horse bedding and economically competitive with sawdust or shavings. At least one company in NY is currently marketing straw pellets for horse bedding.