Switchgrass, energy cane, napier grass and sweet sorghum are some options for Southeast growers as they strive to produce 10 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuels by 2022.

Federal law has mandated a replacement of 36 billion gallons of oil-based fuel by the year 2022. Recent USDA projections call for about 15 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol by 2022 and another billion gallons from soy-based biodiesel. The remainder of the 20 billion gallons is expected to come from cellulosic sources, including biomass crops.

Nearly 50 percent of the 10 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuel is expected to come from the Southeast.

Reductions in tobacco production and large fluctuations in peanut, cotton and grain crops over the past few years has created an interest among many farmers to find a stable alternative crop. To meet government mandated alternative fuel production levels there should be a ready made market for high yielding biomass crops.

The most oft-mentioned of these biomass crops is switchgrass, but there are other options. Speaking at the recent South Carolina Biomass Summit, University of Georgia Researcher Dewey Lee says the optimum biomass crop for the Southeast may be one that has yet to be closely examined.

“The one thing we do know about bioenergy is that it will have to be cheap, because that’s what Americans want. We have low cost energy now, because we subsidize it, and there’s little reason to believe we won’t continue to support low energy costs,” Lee says.

“In the Southeast we can produce sugar cane, sweet sorghum, sweet potatoes, even fruit for fuel. We can produce high volumes of agricultural crop residues like woody biomass, annual grasses like switchgrass, tropical corn, high biomass sorghum — we can produce all those crops, he adds.

“We can grow all those crops and more in the Southeast, the big question is can we produce these crops profitably. Having a market for a crop is one thing, having a market that will pay a farmer enough to make a profit on a crop is another thing,” the University of Georgia professor says.

“There are still technical hurdles we must get over to make any of these crops profitable. It currently costs $60-$80 a ton to produce any of these crops, but the industry says they can’t pay more than $15-20 per ton — that’s a technical problem we have to work out to make any of these possible biofuel crops profitable to grow, he adds.