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By Robert Rapier on Jan 20, 2011 with 46 responses

Marginal Land Produces Marginal Biomass

The global potential for energy crops is a topic of great interest, and the media is often filled with reports of the potential for production on marginal land. Indeed, some of these reports go so far as to suggest that a substantial fraction or even all of current global oil consumption could be replaced by energy crops grown on marginal soil. A new study was just released that makes such a claim:

Study Estimates Land Available for Biofuel Crops

Using detailed land analysis, Illinois researchers have found that biofuel crops cultivated on available land could produce up to half of the world’s current fuel consumption — without affecting food crops or pastureland.

The news release goes into some of the details of the study:

Using fuzzy logic modeling, a technique to address uncertainty and ambiguity in analysis, the researchers considered multiple scenarios for land availability. First, they considered only idle land and vegetation land with marginal productivity; for the second scenario, they added degraded or low-quality cropland. For the second scenario, they estimated 702 million hectares of land available for second-generation biofuel crops, such as switchgrass or miscanthus.

The researchers then expanded their sights to marginal grassland. A class of biofuel crops called low-impact high-diversity (LIHD) perennial grasses could produce bioenergy while maintaining grassland. While they have a lower ethanol yield than grasses such as miscanthus or switchgrass, LIHD grasses have minimal environmental impact and are similar to grassland’s natural land cover.

Adding LIHD crops grown on marginal grassland to the marginal cropland estimate from earlier scenarios nearly doubled the estimated land area to 1,107 million hectares* globally, even after subtracting possible pasture land — an area that would produce 26 to 56 percent of the world’s current liquid fuel consumption.

Speaking as someone who has made similar estimates, let me offer the following caveats. First, I agree with their assessment of available land area. I also attempted to estimate the amount of land that could potentially be available for energy crops in the chapter I wrote for Biofuels, Solar and Wind as Renewable Energy Systems. According to the The World Fact Book, there are 14.9 billion hectares of land area in the world, 13.31% of which are considered to be arable (but much of it marginal). Permanent crops occupy 4.71% of the total land area, leaving 12.8 million square kilometers (1.28 billion hectares) of arable land potentially available for cultivation of energy crops.

It is important to distinguish non-arable land (which people sometimes mistakenly refer to as marginal land) from marginally arable land (marginal land). Non-arable land falls into categories of desert, polar regions, some mountainous areas, etc. The entire continent of Antarctica is an example of non-arable land, encompassing 1.4 billion hectares. But marginal or even non-arable land can sometimes be made arable with irrigation or by applying soil nutrients.

The problem with using marginal land for energy crop production is that the land is deemed marginal for a reason. Marginal means that it simply won’t produce biomass like good arable land. This is the error many people make when trying to determine how much biomass can be grown on marginal land. They use yields more typical of arable land. I worked out an example in the aforementioned book chapter that illustrates how difficult it will be to replace today’s oil production with energy crops:

Consider how much petroleum might be displaced if all 1.28 billion hectares of arable land were planted in an energy crop with an oil productivity similar to rapeseed. While the average worldwide yield is substantially lower, rapeseed growers in Germany have succeeded in pushing oil yields to 2.9 tons/ha (Puppan 2002). If the rest of the world could achieve these high levels, this would result in a hypothetical worldwide oil yield of 3.7 billion tons. The energy content of rapeseed oil is about 10% less than that of petroleum diesel, so the gross petroleum equivalent yield from this exercise is 3.3 billion tons per year.

Because it takes energy to produce the biomass and process into fuel, the net yield will be lower, and in some cases may even be negative (i.e., more energy put into the process than is contained in the final product). Lewis compared several studies that examined the energy inputs required to produce biodiesel from rapeseed (Lewis 1997). Depending on the assumptions made, the energy input estimates ranged from 0.382 to 0.870 joules of input per joule of biodiesel produced and distributed. Assuming the best case value (lowest energy inputs) of 0.382, the net petroleum equivalent yield of rapeseed oil is reduced to 2 billion tons per year. The world’s present usage of petroleum, 85 million barrels per day, is equivalent to 4.25 billion metric tons per year.

Bear in mind that in the thought experiment above, I have presumed usage of all the available arable land in the world, used the best yields from good arable land, pretended that we could get those same yields from marginal land, assumed very low energy inputs to process the biomass into fuel — and still came up with less than half of today’s global oil consumption. I did this particular exercise to frame the global potential for biofuels, not knowing whether the result of the thought experiment would be a multiple of today’s oil consumption or a fraction of it. Because it was only a fraction, and because realistically the yields from marginal land are not likely to be a quarter of the best yields on arable land, I concluded that it was unlikely that biofuels could supply 10% of today’s oil demand.

Another caveat is that these studies often make unwarranted assumptions about the status of biofuel technologies. Even on the best land today, there are few biofuel crops that contribute to global energy supplies. Cellulosic ethanol has been out of commercial reach for 100 years, and yet this is the sort of presumed technology that will turn energy crops into the equivalent of half the world’s oil supply.

Finally, it is very important to remember that studies such as these are based on models. Models can be very important tools, but a model isn’t reality. In fact, models may not remotely resemble reality. I have used models throughout my career, and the most import part of building and using a model is model validation. That is the step where you feed the model data and see if it accurately reproduces known data.

For example, if I model a chemical process, I will validate that model by putting in actual process conditions and then checking whether the output corresponds to the actual plant output. Even then, you can’t be sure that varying the model will give results that will ultimately reflect reality, but without the step of model validation there can be no confidence at all in the model’s predictions

So the question I would ask of this study’s authors is: How did you validate your model? My guess is that it wasn’t validated, but the way it could be validated is to take some marginal land, produce some energy crops, turn them into fuel, and see if the predicted biofuel yields match what is actually demonstrated. My expectation is that it won’t, which means this is just one more study that lulls people into the false belief that on the other side of the oil depletion curve is a vast potential for biofuels just waiting to be scaled up.

References

Lewis, C. (1997). Fuel and Energy Production Emission Factors. MEET Project: Methodologies for Estimating Air Pollutant Emissions from Transport.

Puppan, D. (2002). Environmental evaluation of biofuels, Period Polytech Ser Soc Man Sci, 10, 95–116.

* One hectare is 2.5 acres.

  1. By Kit P on January 20, 2011 at 7:58 am

    “could produce up to half of the world’s current fuel consumption — without affecting food crops or pastureland.”

     

    There you have it, another reason not to be pessimistic. My favorite ‘marginal land’ story is using biosolids from the Seattle area. First the ‘green’ community ships its ‘waste’ 200 miles to dump it on farmers. The farmers only used biosolids on ‘marginal land’ which had the affect of making the ‘marginal land’ very productive land.

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  2. By moiety on January 20, 2011 at 9:41 am

    On the modelling side, Mike Resetarits (www.fri.org) had this to say (Chemical Engineering Dec 2010)

    “During the first three days of last month’s AIChE Annual Meeting … almost half of the projects that the speakers described were computer simulations … very few described how their models were corroborated … That made Don Glatz’s presentationon the fourth day all the morerefreshing [he presented pilot plant data as well as a model].

    Eventually, a significant fraction of them [computer simulators] will be asked to actually pump, catalyze and boil some real fluids. Valves will need to be opened and closed. Columns will need to be pressured up. Hands will need to get dirty. The aptitudes of the next generation might reside elsewhere. Compounding my worries is the appearance that the U.S. governmental agencies that approve grants seem to devote just as much money to computer simulation work as they do pilot planting.”

     

    Models need corroboration. Otherwise they are not useful except in go or no go decisions. Yet current research in many areas is trending towards modelling as a means to an end (as opposed to a means to experiment). When I read that study, I just had to shake my head. I also lijke the 26 to 56 estimate; as is written should I read that as 26±30 – 56±30?

     

     

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  3. By rrapier on January 20, 2011 at 11:33 am

    Models need corroboration. Otherwise they are not useful except in go or no go decisions. Yet current research in many areas is trending towards modelling as a means to an end (as opposed to a means to experiment).

    When I was working in Scotland, I was responsible for a large team of engineers. One day, one of my newly graduated engineers brought me a HYSYS simulation and then recommended a certain course of action based on the model. I asked “How did you validate the model?” He responded “What do you mean?” I explained the concept of model validation, which was a completely new concept to him.

    He was a very bright engineer, but like most engineers coming right out of college was treating a non-validated model as reality.

    RR

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  4. By BilB on January 20, 2011 at 3:02 pm

    Study or no study, Robert, there are those who are just going for it.

    http://www.gizmag.com/sahara-f…..dium=email

    The Seawater Greenhouse movement appear to be guite dynamic.

    Apart from that I know of one private group who did a study on grasses for biomass electricity here in Australia with the serious intention of powering remote mining operations (big energy consumers).

    Making these things work is difficult in a volatile market environment. They will require either government endorsement or the stability of a national cooperative marketing structure. While the world’s governments sit in this non commital limbo on climate change startup projects with the serious intention of providing sustainable alternatives will routinely die off with market fluctuations or marginal viability.

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  5. By Terry on January 20, 2011 at 9:43 pm

    I think people are fixating too much on the high end of the published “26-55%” value.  If you look at their S1 scenario the percentage is only 10-24% global replacement.  And in either case, I don’t think we’ll hit the high end of those estimates unless we have some major breakthroughs in biofuels processing. 

     

    I would also point out that if you look at the distribution of where all this land is, you’ll notice that there’s not much of it here in the United States (~10% of the total).  So under this scheme, if we do not drastically cut our liquid fuel use we will just change from importing oil to importing finished biofuels from Africa and South America.

     

    What I think this study does tells us is that there isn’t enough land available for biofuels to replace a significant part of our liquid fuel use today let alone what it may be in 10 or 20 years when China and India becomes more developed.  But it is a useful first step in looking at what the potential is.  Now we just need to see others start pilot projects to see if this model is valid or not.

     

    -Terry

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  6. By Benny BND Cole on January 20, 2011 at 10:06 pm

    Like anybody, I like the idea of biofuels. But they will be a tough sell in the market. There just is not a lot of calories in the mass, and you have to move the mass around. If global warming is serious, biofuels might be a good option.

    Given that producing electricity seems “easy,” probably a better way to go is PHEVs. PHEVs promise radical reductions in fossil oil demand, along with CNG cars, or methanol vehicles.

    Liquid fuels may become a premium way to go–for airplanes, drivers with money to burn, luxury cruise ships etc.

    I am not sure how green it is to convert marginal land–perhaps better left wild–to produce biofuels. I get the same feeling when I see windmill farms and solar power farms–is this really better than nukes? How about min-nuke plants?

    Once you make the shift to PHEVs, and CNG cars, then the whole liquid fuel shortage threat seems less important. The question is, can you produce electricity?

    That, we know we can do. Nukes, coal, natural gas, hydro, geothermal, wind, solar. No shortage of ways to produce electricity, and it is cheap.

    The nice thing is that PHEVs promise a cleaner and more prosperous future for the USA. Imagine cities with clean air, and hundreds of billions of dollars not wasted on imported oil. Imagine we call our troops home from the Mideast–forever.

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  7. By Walt on January 20, 2011 at 10:13 pm

    Robert Rapier said:

    He was a very bright engineer, but like most engineers coming right out of college was treating a non-validated model as reality.

    RR


     

    Some of the best engineers come freshly out of college…if; 1) their minds are open to new concepts, and 2) they know how to comprehend what they read.  In working with both fresh college graduates and seasoned engineers with 30+ years, I will take the college graduate who knows how to read and comprehend over the senior engineer who has experience in most cases.  Why?  Because the very best of the best seasoned engineers with experience are seldom, if ever, available to work, and are not looking for more work.  Second, those looking have so many bad habits that you end up spending a lot of money replacing equipment because they have not sized it correctly, decided to buy/replace until something works, or are not able to run multiple fast simulations to evaluate multiple ways to accomplish something faster, cheaper and better.  The best engineers come on the site, open the package, sit and read the manual before installation.  The worst are those who install it, break it and look for another replacement while the manufacturer is to blame.  I know…as I get stuck doing all the paperwork…only having it later tested knowing the experienced engineer did not know what they were doing and charged me 3 times more for me to ultimately pay to have it replaced.  The market is filled with them, which is why we work with really smart non-engineers mostly now, manufacturers and run/test/sample/report and correct errors…do again.

    This is not to offend engineers…just offering my experience after years of watching architects and engineers argue who was wrong and who was right.

     

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  8. By BilB on January 20, 2011 at 10:40 pm

    That is a powerful vision there, Benny, (last para). Imagine all of those yellow cabs in times square not belching out exhaust or wasting energy as they sit there waiting to move a few yards further foward.

    The vehicle formula to make that possible is the VW Milano, which will inductively recharge its batteries as it sits in cab ranks waiting for a fare. It is such a better world.

    Container shipping is certain to go nuclear. Google Cosco nuclear container ships. The screws are already in with bunker oil at $500+.

    This is the core of the problem with RR’s rejection of the “report”. The world does not need a total replacement for oil as other technologies move in to take over whole sections of the oil behemoth.

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  9. By russ-finley on January 21, 2011 at 12:45 am

    Posts like these are much appreciated. I groaned when I saw articles about this study. There is also a new one out about food production. You can bet the authors are not in communication and I have to wonder if they are planning to use the same degraded land ; )

     

    http://www.scientificamerican……-be-bright

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  10. By rrapier on January 21, 2011 at 1:04 am

    This is the core of the problem with RR’s rejection of the “report”. The world does not need a total replacement for oil as other technologies move in to take over whole sections of the oil behemoth.

    You misunderstand why I reject the report. My rejection is not because they presume we can replace 50%, 500%, or 5% of current oil production. My rejection is because these sorts of models are never validated, and they presume technology that isn’t actually available to come up with their answers. Hence, their numbers that get often repeated as fact have no reliability.

    RR

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  11. By mac on January 21, 2011 at 3:44 am

    BilB said:

    The world does not need a total replacement for oil as other technologies move in to take over whole sections of the oil behemoth.

    Glad you see the light. About 10% of crude oil is used to manufacture plastics, The truth is that just about everything made from crude oil hydro-carbons can also be made from cellulose (trees and plants) and be bio-degradable.

    Imagine a world without the Great Pacific Trash Vortex or landfills choked with plastic bags and bottles with a half-life of 500 years. That’s one area of the oil behemoth all of us might just love to see gone.

    We made electricity with oil at one time. . .. After the oil embargo, somebody said: “Hey, I don’t want my lights turned off every time some.wacko in the mid-east hiccups” Now, we no longer make electricity with crude.

    Why can’t we apply this same logic to the transportation sector ?

    As you mentioned, there need not be a single “silver bullet” solution, a direct one for one oil replacement. Our transportation sector can easily run on a number of different fuels. This leaves us the option to choose. No need to be hog-tied to a single monolithic, one dimensional fuel structure (crude oil to gasoline to internal combustion engine) that keeps us at the mercy of people who don’t like us.

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  12. By BilB on January 21, 2011 at 4:15 am

    Robert,

    The notion to replace the world’s oil supply with biomass on marginal lands can only ever be a mind exercise based on a finite number of assumptions. And in that can only ever be a comparative idea with the intention to enable positive action. Personally I have no doubt that this is possible, but it would never happen in that way for thousands of reasons. Thousands of reasons because there are many thousands of individual marginal land types, each one requiring individual “farming solutions”.

    This is not a finitely quantifiable evaluation, it is an aspirational assumption. Some things can only ever be validated by actually doing them, this is one of those. Going to the moon was another.

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  13. By moiety on January 21, 2011 at 6:01 am

    The problem with the study is that it is indeed impossible to corroborate. But worse it is a waste. As Robert has point out he made a similar calculation for a book chapter (so I will assume a limited time frame to do it). I have seen other people make such calculations and come to similar conclusions.

    What we have in this study is an expensive and time consuming exercise which essentially comes to the same conclusion as the match-box estimates already made. What is worse is that I will never be able to prove that assertion (with its huge error margins) until I have planted a significant amount of that land.

    I made the assertion that collaboration is needed. That is not entirely true. It is rare that full corroboration will be ever achieved until after implementation. However certain elements can be corroborated as well as certain actions of common sense. Why did these researchers just not focus on Ill. for example where data could be corroborated to some extent and where croup data should be easily obtainable (not to mention relatively uniform) and see if it match the match-box calculations?

    My point is that many engineers (but especially graduates) focus far to much on modelling in e.g. Hysis, Aspen, Coco etc and learn the basics of engineering that way. I have seen models whereby much practical sense and information about the process has been considered. I have also seen processes where the calculations depend on unrealistic assumptions on cooling water temperature supply from the tower (something I learned to assess (and not assume) in 1st year). In this study my suggestion of just limiting to one state at least tries to reach for a practical goal and thereby give some weight to the outlook they suggest.

    Many good engineers do come out of university. While I cannot give a definitive answer on what is a good engineer being not long from that world, I can say that the most important things are enthusiasm and being able to, as the Irish say take the **** out of yourself. If you are not willing or not able to assess your own work first, something is certainly lacking (there are many other useful traits but not everyone will get to use them i.e. being able to crack jokes is always useful at the lunch table). Experience does not necessarily teach that so I can agree that experienced engineers are sometimes crap also.

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  14. By Walt on January 21, 2011 at 6:54 am

    Moiety said:

    My point is that many engineers (but especially graduates) focus far to much on modelling in e.g. Hysis, Aspen, Coco etc and learn the basics of engineering that way. I have seen models whereby much practical sense and information about the process has been considered. I have also seen processes where the calculations depend on unrealistic assumptions on cooling water temperature supply from the tower (something I learned to assess (and not assume) in 1st year).


     

    I would also concede that there are too many examples that can be copied by engineers.  It is really not difficult to model a process if you find all the variables to material balance each step given in other examples.  The real difficulty lies in working where nobody has gone before.  It is like the blogger or journalist who cuts/pastes quotes from various studies to make a point, but this is easy if someone else does the hard work.  This has become so common place now with the internet.  If something is not easy to find with a couple quick links to “prove” something is real, it is just not real.  The hard work to dig and dig to find the answers take money and time, and fewer and fewer people are willing to take that type of risk…unless someone else is footing the bill, or the government guarantees against loss.

    What is encouraging is that more and more trade schools are filling the gap for the middle class students who cannot afford universities, and they are not spending day after day doing google searches.  They are testing those assumptions you talk about in the shop or field, and using modeling as a tool test different concept that can be quickly applied.  Changing models can take minutes or hours, seldom days, but running the field tests can take a week or month or year of prep-time.  The more I see the graduates of trade schools, the more I am hopeful America could go back to its roots, and bring forth some really gifted people who don’t find cut/paste of assumptions the best route to learning.

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  15. By Kit P on January 21, 2011 at 8:58 am

    “We made electricity with oil at one time. ….Why can’t we apply this same logic to the transportation sector ?”

     

    No, because Mac’s logic is based on flawed assumptions. ‘We’ made electricity with coal with ‘cheap’ oil being used as an alternative. Much as ‘cheap’ natural gas is being used today. The world has abundant supplies of fossil fuels, the real work comes in getting fossil fuels to where they are needed.

     

    The alternatives to coal are natural gas, oil, and nuclear power. Notice I did not list wind or solar as alternatives, I will explain the limitations in terms of ‘engineering resources’ later. The point being that oil was an alternative to which there were other equally viable alternatives. In the US, nuke plants replaced oil because nukes could beat oil economically. In France, coal was not a choice unless they imported it, so nukes are the primary source of electricity.

     

    Presently there are no viable alternatives to oil that have been demonstrated. There are lots of potential viable alternatives such as CNG, ethanol, biodiesel, CTL, GTL, and BEV. I think the limiting factor to CNG and BEV is customer acceptance. I do not think that the available biomass is the limiting factor for ethanol &, biodiesel but rather the engineers to design, build, and keep them running. We have to learn to work smarter not harder.

    “My point is that many engineers (but especially graduates) focus far to much on modelling”

     

    Bless their hearts! I now have a 3-D model to walk down a plant to look for piping interferences years before we ever get to pouring concrete. For nuke plants, the models have been validated by years of operating experience. However, one of the things that I encourage young engineers to do is get out to a plant that is being started up. The dynamic forces of an operating plant is something that must be experienced.

     

    The ‘engineering resources’ per kwh or gallons of transportation fuel must be considered. Maybe 90% of a process can be done by the ‘cookie cutter’ or standard plant approach; however, things like cooling water will be different at every location. Wind, solar, and biomass are variable location to location. That may be a nice model but if it is foggy or there is no wind when you need electricity or then ‘expected’ will not match actual. If you do not make money, you can pay to fix things. Yes, there are reliability models too.

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  16. By Wendell Mercantile on January 21, 2011 at 9:49 am

    I am not sure how green it is to convert marginal land–perhaps better left wild–to produce biofuels.

    Benny,

    Those marginal lands are called “marginal” for a reason. Biofuel crops suck nutrients out of the soil and need water just as commodity crops do, and if those soils are marginal to start with, there will be a limit to how much we can get from them. Even the marginal soils on which switchgrass can allegedly grow will need to be restored and fertilized periodically.

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  17. By russ-finley on January 21, 2011 at 10:00 am

    BilB said:

     Some things can only ever be validated by actually doing them, this is one of those. Going to the moon was another.


     

    All good points but I’m not sure we needed to go to the moon ; )

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  18. By rrapier on January 21, 2011 at 12:22 pm

    The notion to replace the world’s oil supply with biomass on marginal lands can only ever be a mind exercise based on a finite number of assumptions.

    You may understand that and I may understand that, but my whole point is that exercises like this can lull the public and policy makers into a false sense of security regarding the problem of oil depletion. After all, who needs to worry about that when we have all of this marginal land ready to step up and replace 50% of our oil supplies.

    RR

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  19. By Kit P on January 21, 2011 at 12:53 pm

    “Those marginal lands are called “marginal” for a reason.”

    Wendell, are you not the guy who was explaining to Rufus how the Washington State county I lived in could not produce enough agriculture to support a biofuel facility? Yet it is a very productive agricultural region. The reason the 100% marginal land 100 years ago was the semi-arid climate. Making marginal land more productive is better unless you like wind erosion creating dust storms.

    I love when city watermelons talk about a monoculture crop replacing the natural habitat. Well the natural habitat was an invasive weed monoculture accidentally introduced by Russian fur trappers. For those who get upset about how their tax dollars are spent, DOE spends lots of money restoring invasive weeds. One only has to back a short time to find the natural state was covered by a glacier.

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  20. By Wendell Mercantile on January 21, 2011 at 1:34 pm

    …are you not the guy who was explaining to Rufus how the Washington State county I lived in could not produce enough agriculture to support a biofuel facility?

    Yup, that was me. Erroneously based on historical images I’ve seen of the Hanford Site. Although I still think when I look at those images of the Hanford reactors along the Columbia River, it appears to be predominantly desert scrub land — not unlike parts of Wyoming where I once lived. The atlas also says that region averages about 10″ of rain annually.

    But if you say plants can grow and thrive there, I’ll take your word for it.

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  21. By Denny Haldeman on January 22, 2011 at 9:06 am

    RR is correct in the many assumptions behind the “science” of biomass energy proponents. Much of the science is done in a vacuum, failing to address very real and serious constraints.

    The Human Appropriation of Net Primary Productivity is currently around 25% and projected to be at 50% by 2050, WITHOUT the additional pressure of converting NPP to biofuels and electricity. That 25% is not evenly diffused, but an average across the biosphere. In the foodbelts, the numbers run into the 80% or more.

    With the current climate instabiilty, food production by itself is already poised to be troublesome in producing enough annual growth to feed the 7 billion humans who are demanding more every year. Between the droughts, floods, freezes, and extraordinary heat events, we are walking on thin ice in our current food security for the next couple of decades.

    The models don’t address unsustainable draining of aquifers, both for crop production and conversion to biofuels. In the land of 10,000 lakes, Minnesota, where corn ethanol production has “matured”, the Ogallala Aquifer is being strained by the additional demands of that ethanol boondoggle. The last dust bowl was most pronounced in the lands above that aquifer.

    There is also the constraints of peak phosphorus and peak natural gas, both used for fertilizers to allow current yields. According to the Global Phosphorus Research Initiative, hosphorus production will be unable to meet current demands for food within the next 30-40 years. Natural gas used to make anhydrous amonia, is now being done with the fracking technique, a major threat to groundwater and surface water quality and supplies.

    And, these “marginal lands” and Conservation Reserve Program lands targeted by the rosie scenario biomass crowd, were previously abused and or had high erosion potential, and are better serving mankind as wildlife habitat, stream buffers, and carbon sinks.

    If we were to be honest about our carbon budget in mitigating GHG emissions, we would be increasing forest cover and minimizing or eliminating unsustainable forestry and agricultural practices, rather than proposing to double them to provide food for cars.

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  22. By Wendell Mercantile on January 22, 2011 at 11:42 am

    In the land of 10,000 lakes, Minnesota, where corn ethanol production has “matured”, the Ogallala Aquifer is being strained by the additional demands of that ethanol boondoggle.

    Denny~

    I agree with much of what you say, but suspect the people of Minnesota would be surprised to find their water comes from the Ogallala Aquifer. Ogallala Aquifer

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  23. By BilB on January 22, 2011 at 12:13 pm

    Wendell,

    Regardless of what fate the corn grown in the Minnesota area has, ethanol or food, such an aquifer will be strained. The real problem is the farming practices, not the end product. There appears to be a real need to bash the crap out of ethanol. If it was Whiskey that you were producing there would be none of this comment.

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  24. By Wendell Mercantile on January 22, 2011 at 11:06 pm

    Regardless of what fate the corn grown in the Minnesota area has, ethanol or food, such an aquifer will be strained…

    BilB~

    Yes, but it won’t be the Ogallala Aquifer that is stressed in Minnesota since in the Land of 10,000 Lakes and the Headwaters of the Mighty Mississippi River, water comes from a different source.

    The Ogallala is under severe stress in places such as Nebraska, Kansas, and the Texas Panhandle, where almost all agriculture is irrigated with water being drawn from the Ogallala at a rate much faster than it is being recharged, and ethanol production west of the 100th meridian from corn is not sustainable. 100th Meridian

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  25. By BilB on January 23, 2011 at 12:10 am

    You missed the point, Wendell. Those farmers are going to be using the same amount of water no matter what they are growing. If Ethanol were to be illegal next year, they are not going to turn that land into national parkland. They’ll switch to some other crop. Maybe cotton.

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  26. By Wendell Mercantile on January 23, 2011 at 2:00 pm

    What you have is a bunch of people who live one place explaining why people who live someplace else should not do something.

    Kit P~

    You’re right, it’s none of my business whether people west of the 100th meridian try to grow corn for ethanol. If they want to try, they are welcome to do it.

    But it does become my business — everybody’s business in fact — when we foolishly use tax dollars subsidizing them to do it, or if we let them fritter away and drain the Ogallala* growing corn for ethanol.

    —————-
    * A priceless and irreplaceable national resource.

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  27. By rrapier on January 23, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    Wendell Mercantile said:

    What you have is a bunch of people who live one place explaining why people who live someplace else should not do something.

    Kit P~

    You’re right, it’s none of my business whether people west of the 100th meridian try to grow corn for ethanol. If they want to try, they are welcome to do it.

    But it does become my business — everybody’s business in fact — when we foolishly use tax dollars subsidizing them to do it, or if we let them fritter away and drain the Ogallala* growing corn for ethanol.

    —————-

    * A priceless and irreplaceable national resource.


     

    That was going to be my point exactly. It is our tax dollars incentivizing their actions. In that case, we are certainly within our rights to question whether this is something we should be subsidizing.

    If ethanol wasn’t subsidized and mandated, I suspect places like Iowa would still be fine. But nobody in Western Nebraska would be turning corn into ethanol.

    Also, Kit, if you are going to characterize a point as nonsense, perhaps you should address that point instead of rambling on about some other situation. Tell us what it is nonsense that dry-land ethanol isn’t sustainable as currently practiced.

    RR

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  28. By Kit P on January 23, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    “But it does become my business — everybody’s business in fact — when we foolishly use tax dollars subsidizing them to do it, or if we let them fritter away and drain the Ogallala* growing corn for ethanol.”

    Wendell, please send me your tax returns for the last 5 years so I can check to see if there is anything that I might think is my business. Wendell never tells us what he does for a living but I bet I can apply his logic to make his life my business.

    Three things here Wendell. First we are talking about making land productive and is there more land we can make productive to produce transportation fuel. Second, Wendell you seem to want to change the topic government spending without establishing what that spending would be. Third, you want to suggest that national policy for alternatives for transportation fuel is foolish.

     

    “Ogallala”

     

    Sounds like a pretense to stick you nose where it does not belong. Just for the record, people were growing corn long before ethanol.

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  29. By Duracomm on January 23, 2011 at 8:52 pm

    Kit P, showing his usual grace and courtesy says,

    Sounds like a pretense to stick you nose where it does not belong.

    Farm Policy is paid for by all US taxpayers, ethanol mandates and subsidies are paid for by all US taxpayers.

    Wendell and every other taxpayer has has an absolute god given right to look at ethanol policy.

    Funny how ethanol supporters get bent out of shape when taxpayers take interest in policies they are paying for. Sunlight is the best disinfectant and it looks like that terrifies ethanol fan-boys.

    Third, you want to suggest that national policy for alternatives for transportation fuel is foolish.

    The current ethanol policy shows just how foolish and counterproductive national policy for transport fuels is.

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  30. By Wendell Mercantile on January 23, 2011 at 11:21 pm

    Just for the record, people were growing corn long before ethanol.

    Absolutely true Kit P. and it’s not any better subsidizing farms west of the 100th meridian to grow corn for HFCS, or to feed cattle that had evolved naturally to eat grass.

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  31. By Kit P on January 24, 2011 at 8:49 am

    “Farm Policy is paid for by all US taxpayers, ethanol mandates and subsidies are paid for by all US taxpayers.”

     

    So is cleaning up Hanford. If you are really worried about how our tax dollars are used maybe it would be prudent to start out with things that cost a lot of money and provide little benefit and work your way down to thing that have the potential to produce large tax revenues.

     

    Energy production in the US is regulated and restricted profits are driving production to places that can charge as much as they want.

     

    “The current ethanol policy shows just how foolish and counterproductive national policy for transport fuels is.”

     

    It sure looks productive to me. Note that Duracomm did not actually suggest any alternatives.

     

    “grow corn for HFCS, or to feed cattle that had evolved naturally to eat grass.”

     

    So Wendell do not buy stuff with HFCS and only buy ‘natural’ stuff. Long before the current production of ethanol I have walked down many CAFOs. I think it is a pretty good way produce affordable beef, chicken, eggs, and milk. I have also been on many organic operations too. Nothing wrong with doing it that way either. I would not pay extra because I do not see that it is ‘greener’ or better from a nutrition standpoint.

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  32. By Wendell Mercantile on January 24, 2011 at 10:23 am

    Long before the current production of ethanol I have walked down many CAFOs. I think it is a pretty good way produce affordable beef, chicken, eggs, and milk. I have also been on many organic operations too. Nothing wrong with doing it that way either.

    Kit P.

    There are some serious health questions with CAFO livestock, especially the fact those animals need massive, regular doses of antibiotics to stay alive. The main adverse effect of that is the value of those antibiotics becomes less as the pathogens continue to evolve and build resistance to antibiotics. Using up all the antibiotic arrows in our quiver just to keep CAFO livestock alive may not be the smartest thing in the long run.

    As with corn ethanol, if livestock farmers want to run CAFOs that’s their business, but let’s not give them the incentive of subsidized corn with which to do it.

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  33. By Kit P on January 23, 2011 at 10:49 am

    west of the 100th meridian from corn is not sustainable

     

    Nonsense! What you have is a bunch of people who live one place explaining why people who live someplace else should not do something. In general I have found those same people are clueless about their local environment. People who ‘care’ about the environment but not enough to actually study their environment and make educated choices.

    Wendell’s Hanford is a perfect example for this topic. North of Horn Rapids Road you have a waste land because it does not rain in the summer. That is why that location was picked to make nuclear weapons. Horn Rapids Road farmers are growing corn and other crops. Hot summers and an abundant sustainable water supply. At higher elevations, dryland wheat is the main crop. On the side of hills you will see vineyards producing award winning wine.

    During WWII, the Manhattan Project has a problems called resignation winds. When the wind blew hard, day turned to night with dust. Many new worker could not handle it and left. The wind still blows but the sky only turns brown because farm crops hold the soil over a much larger area. When driving on Hanford Reservation, blowing dust is still a problem along with ‘tumble weed’ bigger than your car.

    One of the interesting things I notice in my 30 year old neighborhood, is the soil has build 3” where grass has been continuously irrigated.

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  34. By Max Shelby on January 25, 2011 at 12:12 pm

    Mr. Rapier,

    How does Monsanto figure into this picture? One would guess that their GE grasses and trees may be a component of this endeavor.

    I am still struggling to understand the “undisclosed amount” invested by GM in Coskata and the fact that GM claimed they had to have millions in bailout money.

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  35. By rrapier on January 25, 2011 at 3:13 pm

    Max Shelby said:

    Mr. Rapier,

    How does Monsanto figure into this picture? One would guess that their GE grasses and trees may be a component of this endeavor.

    I am still struggling to understand the “undisclosed amount” invested by GM in Coskata and the fact that GM claimed they had to have millions in bailout money.


     

    I expect that the only way biomass will ever be able to displace much oil will be to genetically engineer species for higher biomass, sugar, or oil yields. Imagine a nitrogen-fixing corn or cold-tolerant sugarcane. Those could be real game changers.

    RR

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  36. By Optimist on January 25, 2011 at 5:14 pm

    Denny Haldeman said:

    The Human Appropriation of Net Primary Productivity is currently around 25% and projected to be at 50% by 2050, WITHOUT the additional pressure of converting NPP to biofuels and electricity. That 25% is not evenly diffused, but an average across the biosphere. In the foodbelts, the numbers run into the 80% or more.


     Denny,

    You are treating NPP as a fixed number. I would say it is just a matter of time until we start increasing NPP, as a matter of necessity.

    With the current climate instabiilty, food production by itself is already poised to be troublesome in producing enough annual growth to feed the 7 billion humans who are demanding more every year. Between the droughts, floods, freezes, and extraordinary heat events, we are walking on thin ice in our current food security for the next couple of decades.

    Sounds like a reasonable statement. In reality, it’s a matter of so far, so good. Food (and commodities in general) prices are trending up, but not enough to cause panic. Yet?

    There is also the constraints of peak phosphorus and peak natural gas, both used for fertilizers to allow current yields. According to the Global Phosphorus Research Initiative, hosphorus production will be unable to meet current demands for food within the next 30-40 years. Natural gas used to make anhydrous amonia, is now being done with the fracking technique, a major threat to groundwater and surface water quality and supplies.

    I guess we need to close the loop on phosphorus, and recover what we can from wastewater, as opposed to the current practice which is either to send it to landfill, or simply leave it in the effluent. Once you close the loop, you can pretty much close the phosphorus mines. But I’m getting ahaed of myself. I guess recovery will only get serious attention when phosphorus is scarce, and price reflects that.

    And, these “marginal lands” and Conservation Reserve Program lands targeted by the rosie scenario biomass crowd, were previously abused and or had high erosion potential, and are better serving mankind as wildlife habitat, stream buffers, and carbon sinks.

    I guess we need to move beyond “marginal lands” and start looking at getting some productive photosynthesis from “marginal oceans”. We still have plenty of that.

    If we were to be honest about our carbon budget in mitigating GHG emissions, we would be increasing forest cover and minimizing or eliminating unsustainable forestry and agricultural practices, rather than proposing to double them to provide food for cars.

    Spot on. Unfortunately Uncle Sam and Big Ag are conspiring to maintain the (very profitable) status quo.

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  37. By paul-n on January 25, 2011 at 8:33 pm

    I expect that the only way biomass will ever be able to displace much oil will be to genetically engineer species for higher biomass, sugar, or oil yields. Imagine a nitrogen-fixing corn or cold-tolerant sugarcane. Those could be real game changers.

    RR

    Having just returned from the country that makes its living farming “marginal” land I can say that there is obviously some potential for “improvement” of productivity of marginal lands by GE of crops, but I’m not sure it would be a game changer.  Marginal land is still poor in nutrients/water/soil structure or just too windy.  Probably the best way to improve productivity of marginal land is to put up wind turbines in those windswept areas, as is currently being done in Australia, US, Canada, Scotland, NZ, Spain, China, etc.

    Efforts at creating nitrogen fixing corn have been going on for as long as  efforts to make fuel from algae, and with about the same degree of success.   As always, you don;t get something for nothing – the bacteria that turn N2 into NH3 need energy to do it, and that must come from the plant itself.  One pathway involves the reduction of acetylene (CH=CH) which must first be made by the plant, and give3n that acetylene contains enough energy to be used for cutting steel, you can get some idea of the energy input required to get the “free” nitrogen. This is why legume crops from alfalfa to soybeans, never produce biomass or seed yields close to non legumes, and way less than the C4 grasses like corn/sugarcane/sorghum.  You do avoid using natural gas to produce nitrogen, but they opportunity cost of doing this is about a 50% reduction in biomass yield.  Even a GE N fixing corn can’t get around the this chemistry – it will need to divert a substantial amount of the carbohydrate produced from photosynthesis into nitrogen production, with a commensurate drop in yield.

    A cold tolerant sugarcane would be nice, but the C4 grasses just don;t do cold tolerance.  Just like the legume that has to divert resources to N fixing, so too cold tolerant plants must divert resources to surviving the cold.  Perennial plants (and sugar cane is one) must store some of their sugars as starch in their roots, to provide a store of energy to survive the winter, and to produce new shoots/buds in the spring when they have no leaves to photosynthesize.  The sugar maple tree is a great example of this – halfway through the summer, it starts sending sugars down the trunk to store in the roots, and releases them in the late winter to grow the buds and be ready as soon as the sun and warmth come out – and this late winter sugar rich sap flow is the source of maple syrup.  A cold tolerant sugar cane would be doing the same thing, so there must be less sugar to harvest.

     

    Either of these options, if they come to pass, certainly give farmers new options for what to grow, and would likely be an improvement, but we shouldn’t be holding out for massive increases in production – it is the land that is marginal – not the crops growing on it.  Efforts made to improve the marginal land into good land(soil improvement/windbreaks/erosion control etc) will result in greater productivity improvements than trying to grow good(GE) crops on marginal land.  

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  38. By moiety on January 26, 2011 at 5:27 am

     Paul N said:

    I expect that the only way biomass will ever be able to displace much oil will be to genetically engineer species for higher biomass, sugar, or oil yields. Imagine a nitrogen-fixing corn or cold-tolerant sugarcane. Those could be real game changers.

    RR

    Having just returned from the country that makes its living farming “marginal” land I can say that there is obviously some potential for “improvement” of productivity of marginal lands by GE of crops, but I’m not sure it would be a game changer.  


     

    Neither am I. This kind of talk is similar in the pharma field on certain aspects

    http://pipeline.corante.com/ar…..at_it_.php

    We want to produce crops that can

    • Grow in marginal land
    • With little input resources
    • Not take over the local ecosystem
    • Have higher energy density
    • etc etc

    Monsanto have stated that improvements come from “a series of genetic enhancements through breeding that may, in fact, reduce overall fertilizer despite the boon in production” to take yields from around 170 to 300 bushels/acre in 2030.

    http://biofuelsdigest.com/bdig…..al-report/

    http://www.agweb.com/article/p…..estimates/

     

    So we get a doubling of the amount of corn available for fuel for the same fertiliser and use. How much extra fuel does that provide and at what EROI? Improving marginal lands full-stop is possibly a key but that comes back to how much can you improve marginal lands?

    My take is the main key is reducing the amount of inputs need to grow is what we focus on in the physical sense (i.e. hydroponics) as opposed to the genetic sense. Both areas are being considered and time will give a good take on what wins out.

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  39. By Herm on January 26, 2011 at 10:19 am

    Paul N said:

    Efforts at creating nitrogen fixing corn have been going on for as long as  efforts to make fuel from algae, and with about the same degree of success.   As always, you don;t get something for nothing -

    Thank you Paul, this has always bothered me in the back of the mind.. you would think evolution would have created some organism that could survive in these marginal lands after all these billions of years.

     

    Perhaps what we need are slow growing energy dense crops for these lands, and harvest these crops every few years.. start working on creosote bushes, those things can survive anything.

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  40. By Wendell Mercantile on January 26, 2011 at 12:24 pm

    you would think evolution would have created some organism that could survive in these marginal lands after all these billions of years.

    Herm~

    By definition, if organisms could survive handily in those lands, they wouldn’t be called “marginal.”

    Perhaps what we need are slow growing energy dense crops for these lands, and harvest these crops every few years..

    You could certainly do that, but you would need millions of hectares to provide the energy we now get from coal and natural gas.

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  41. By russ on January 26, 2011 at 12:50 pm

    Wendell – You were right – Take a look at the land in the Hanford area without water from the Columbia – scrub and desert.

     

    You get farther to the east into the Palouse and it is different but the Tri-Cities area depends 100% on the Columbia and irrigation – same for the opposite side of the Columbia downstream a bit in Oregon.

     

     

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  42. By paul-n on January 26, 2011 at 4:33 pm

    By definition, if organisms could survive handily in those lands, they wouldn’t be called “marginal.”

    Just to nit-pick here Wendell, there are organisms that can survive handily in those marginal lands, even some normal plants.   It’s just that you can’t have very many of them, compared to fertile ground.

    Australian farmers grow grain on some very marginal land – you have to have less than half the seeding rate per acre, or the plants use all the water competing with each other and die before they seed set.  The yields can be as low as 30bu/ac, but, by carefully managing (minimising) inputs, it can be viable (most of the time).

     

    The real issue with most marginal lands is not what you can or can;t grow, it is that you can’t grow very much of it – which, of course, makes many crops uneconomical.   There will always be something worth doing be it grazing cattle, growing camellia or growing trees – but often that is not what the landowner is set up for or experienced in.

    So, we can make use of marginal lands, and even grow useful things, but the yield will always be much less than fertile lands – even Monsanto can’t change that.

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  43. By Wendell Mercantile on January 26, 2011 at 5:01 pm

    The real issue with most marginal lands is not what you can or can’t grow, it is that you can’t grow very much of it – which, of course, makes many crops uneconomical.

    Agree Paul. I lived for a number of years in Wyoming. We had dry land wheat farmers around there but none ever had yields to brag about, and it was often an iffy deal whether they would get a crop at all. (Common practice was to let a wheat field lay fallow for a year to collect moisture before putting a crop on it. But it always seemed to me that seldom got ahead of evaporation from the wind and sun.) It also took many, many acres to support a herd of cattle. (20 or more acres for a single head.)

    The only thing that seemed to thrive on those marginal lands were the pronghorns, jack rabbits, rattlesnakes, and tumbleweeds. I can’t imagine those marginal lands providing a continuous good source of biomass for energy.)

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  44. By paul-n on January 26, 2011 at 5:25 pm

    Sounds like the same plan as for many Australian farmers – let the moisture build for a year and then crop.  What has enabled this is to work well is, paradoxically, Monsanto!  By leaving the crop stubble standing to prevent erosion and minimise evaporation, they can then spray for weeds in the fallow year to prevent them robbing soil moisture.  They will usually do two, maybe three rotations of crop/fallow and then return the land to pasture and graze cattle for three-four years. Same deal – low stocking rates, and you are competing with kangaroos.

    Some farmers have given up on their cattle altogether and just farm kangaroos – ideally suited to the land and produce very lean meat.  But mustering the damn things is something else!

    In any case, the theme for really marginal land is the same – let the animals go out there and harvest the biomass for you, then just harvest the animals.  Only other real alternative is plant it to forest, which is too much of a long term plan for most landowners.

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  45. By Emiliano Maletta on May 19, 2012 at 11:48 am

    Good point!! Marginal lands, are not best suited for biofuels… I’m focused on marginal lands in Spain, a semiarid country where biomass electircity and thermal applications have started in 2005 and grew very fast. Many options were developed for irrigated lands, but no for semiarid enviroments, where scarce rains in spring and summer limit most C4 grasses as well as short rotation forestry.

    Nevertheless, there are some crops producing lignocellulosic biomass that may be used for electricity production, especially in rotation patterns, using maximum nitrogen dosages of 60 or 80 kg/ha.year, and perennial species (woody and herbaceous) with limited production (5-10 oven dried tonnes per ha per year). This has evaluated and after life cycle assessments and some economic analysis, we concluded that natural gas electricity GHG emissions might be reduced in 70% when replacing this fossil source (the cleanest actually) with biomass electircity in 25MW power energy plants consuming square bales from marginal areas (rains below 400mm and very unfertile soils where cereal crops are not an economic reasonable option anymore!).

    You may follow this discussions here:

    http://www.linkedin.com/groups/Energy-Crops-Worldwide-3763560?gid=3763560&trk=hb_side_g

     

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  46. By Emiliano Maletta on July 17, 2012 at 10:07 am

    I work as freelance consultant with energy crops mostly in marginal lands in Spain (semiarid, 350-550mm, very unfertile soils).  In the last five years I did several studies for CIEMAT (www.ciemat.es), the Spanish national authhority on renewable energy and environment.

    We now see unviable bioethanol from corn and other energy crops as well as biodiesel from rapeseeds and even 2nd generation biofuels at least with our current enzymes advancement. This is like this, in most rain-fed lands because of marginal yields. Spain has 4M hecatares available as a result of liberalization of EU Common Agricultural Policy reforms (from 1993 to 2009). Most of them, previously with low competitive winter cereals  (less than 1,9 t/ha).

    After decades of research, we concluded that electricity from perennial grasses can be a possible way to use in a sustainable manner the huge quantity of lands (in %) that Spanish farmers have at the time that government and regional stakeholders are trying to determine which possible solutions can be driven for fixing population in isolated rural areas and providing renewable energy alternatives at the same time.

    We made life cycle assessments providing biomass to 25MW biomass plants previously using straw and triticale, and we concluded that some perennial grasses can provide as low yields as 4 dried tonnes per hectare in a sustinable approach with low or none fertilizers, rotation with some legumes and providing a 15 years rotation with winter cereals in a much better alternative scheme providing energy for electric/heat co-firing units. And we suspect that this would be also possible with pyrolisis and biochar to the ground managements.

    See some videos for the plant and also some good pictures, articles and other information on this here:

    Some presentations and reports:  http://slidesha.re/NvfFiG

    LINKEDIN: http://es.linkedin.com/in/emilianomaletta

    http://bioenergycrops.tumblr.com/

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