It’s a tough business environment to switch to a sustainable energy source that is better in the long-term, but more expensive in the short-term. Caught in the middle of the classic ‘pay me now or pay me later’ scenario are farmers.

Lonnie Carter, who is CEO of Santee-Cooper, one of South Carolina’s largest utilities says his company recently (January, 2012) entered into an agreement with Green Energy Solutions. The new company will pick up waste from poultry, hog and cattle farms and deliver it to Santee-Cooper plants to be burned in the process of generating electricity.

“We already do that with materials from landfills, so we know how to make it work with agricultural waste products. I believe you will continue to see more clearly in the future how closely energy and agricultural are tied together,” Carter says.

In addition to on-farm waste for energy, long-time Clemson University agronomist and more recently biomass researcher, Jim Frederick, says there is interest among farmers to grow alternative crops that can be used for biomass. But, he says, farmers aren’t going to invest in growing a crop without proof there will be a market for it — and at a competitive price with more traditional crops grown in the state.

Frederick says, “We have been doing research here at the PeeDee Agricultural Research and Extension Center for several years. We are trying to get a handle on how to grow it and improve yield and quality. Before farmers get interested in growing switchgrass, we must have the best growing practices in place.”

In addition to switchgrass, Frederick says a number of private companies are testing biomass species independently and in cooperation with the biomass research program at the PeeDee research center.

“It’s not just about biomass crop production, we have to look at the various parts of the bioenergy chain and how on-farm production fits,” Frederick adds.

“Harvesting, pre-processing and end users are just part of the complete bioenergy chain that needs to be in place before farmers are going to grow biomass crops on their farms.”

“I think utilities in South Carolina and other parts of the Southeast are in a ‘wait-and-see’ mode about alternative energy. We are working with a number of utilities, including a large one in Europe, who are all interested in burning South Carolina-grown switchgrass.

“But farmers are not going to invest in something that’s not there, and growing switchgrass instead of other crops is a major investment for farmers,” the South Carolina scientist says.

There is intense competition for acres among a number of both warm season and cool season annual crops in South Carolina. A big push is on to increase fall-planted canola and flax acreage in the Palmetto state, which is coming off one of its best wheat production years ever.

Among traditional crops, corn and soybean prices remain attractive and cotton and peanut prices are highly competitive with these grain crops. Making room for switchgrass or any other perennial biomass crop will be difficult.