Farmers in east Tennessee are harvesting 723 acres of switchgrass this fall which a new cellulosic ethanol plant will turn into ‘grassoline.’

The plant, which is under construction at the Niles Ferry Industrial Park in Vonore, Tenn., 32 miles southeast of Knoxville, is part of the University of Tennessee Biofuels Initiative, a state-sponsored plan whose objective is to advance a biofuels economy in the state.

“Our goal is to go from the farm to the filling station,” said Kelly Tiller, director of external operations, Office of Bioenergy Programs, University of Tennessee. “We want to demonstrate farm production, conversion to ethanol and end use.” Tiller spoke at the West Tennessee Alternative Crop Conference at the Fogelman Executive Conference Center at the University of Memphis.

UT created a for-profit company called Genera Energy to construct and operate the new facility with a private company called DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol. Ground was broken on the Vonore plant Oct. 14. When completed, the principle product of the biorefinery will be “grassoline,” ethanol fuel derived from plant material such as switchgrass, wood chips and other forest and agricultural biomass. Expected capacity is 250,000 gallons of cellulosic ethanol annually.

“We're doing this in phases,” Tiller said. “Switchgrass was planted on 723 acres in 2008, and we're in the process of harvesting that now. We're going to contract for another 2,000 acres this coming spring, and 3,000 acres for the spring of 2010.”

The acreage is expected to produce more switchgrass than the biorefinery can process, according to Tiller, “but we think this is a good opportunity for farmers to get the biomass growing in advance of there being lots of cellulosic ethanol opportunities.”

Meanwhile the excess switchgrass will be pelletized “for use as green power, for example being co-fired in coal-burning power plants.”

Almost 1.5 million acres of land in Tennessee have been identified as having a good fit for growing a dedicated energy crop “in a sustainable way that does not influence the food, feed, fuel, fiber balance,” Tiller said.

West Tennessee farmer Willie German attended the conference to gauge the potential value of alternative crops to his cotton and grain operation in Somerville, Tenn. “Looking at what has happened to our cotton price recently has us wondering if cotton is going to be a viable option for us. We lost our Step 2 program, and it doesn't look like we can get the price up high enough to grow cotton profitably.

“I farm in an area where there is very little irrigation, so some years, even with good soybean and corn prices, we don't always produce the yield we need to make a profit. We need other options.

“I'm here to grasp a little bit of what's coming. It's good to see this much money is being spent to develop an alternative to these fossil fuels. I want to stay on top of it, and when the price they want to offer us to grow some of these crops looks good, I want to be able to put my name in the hat.”

R.D. James, a farmer and cotton ginner from New Madrid, Mo., is already familiar with switchgrass, having grown it in strips for the Conservation Security Program.

James attended the conference “to learn more about where the experts think this is going. Is it just going to be a bubble — farmers put a lot of money into new crops, lose the relationships in the crops they were growing, then three years later, the new crops go away?

“I think what I'm hearing here today is that is not the case. The way the experts see it, switchgrass is going to be a very useful crop.”

The plight of cotton, with its high input costs and low prices relative to grains and soybeans, is another reason why James attended the conference. “We've been in the cotton ginning business since 1937. We've been down before, like the 1970s, but it always seems to come back. But the U.S. cotton industry has lost its spinning mills to China and India and most of the cotton we produce in the United States is exported.

“Our cotton industry has become an afterthought to the world economy. If that continues downward, then I have to figure out some other way to make a living. I don't want to wait until it happens before I do something about it.”

Tiller says the pellet mill and biorefinery are expected to come on line by the end of 2009 in time for the second year of switchgrass harvest. Tiller noted that all of the signed up acreage will be within a 50-mile radius of the biorefinery. All of the farmers sign three-year contracts paying $450 per acre per year, with UT providing seed and technical expertise.

Tiller noted switchgrass harvested in 2008 will be stored, which will present UT with the opportunity to study various storage options for the feedstock. “We need to know what happens to a bale of switchgrass if it sits out in the open for a length of time.”

Some farmers have reported switchgrass yields approaching 5 tons per acre this fall, which is surprising for an establishment year. “But we've had some fields that didn't do as well,” Tiller said.

West Tennessee has the potential to produce nearly 7 million dry tons of switchgrass per year.

The Tennessee legislature approved funding of about $70 million for UTBI in June 2007 to develop the biorefinery project. Tiller says UT hopes to move toward a commercial scale biorefinery by 2012.

The conference was sponsored by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture and Memphis Bioworks Foundation.