The Southeast has the land, water and climate to grow vast amounts of biomass for use in energy production, but developing a viable industry for crops like miscantha and switchgrass has been a slow-go.

Speaking at the recent South Carolina BioEnergy Summit, Bob Long, general manager of resource planning for SCANA (not an acronym), the state’s largest energy supplier, says utilities are looking for alternatives to coal.

If biomass from farmers was readily available at less cost, utilities would buy it, he says.

The problem with that scenario, Long says, is that farmers need long-term contracts to grow crops for conversion to energy. So far, utilities in South Carolina haven’t been willing to invest in such long-term commitments.

John Clark, who heads Palmetto Clean Solutions, says utilities are not so interested in alternative energy because they have been using fossil fuel for a long time. They know how to buy it, use it and get it to the customer. And, make a profit.

With biomass conversion, that whole process is new and not one South Carolina utilities have been quick to adapt.

SCANA, for example, was recently listed in a Newsweek Magazine survey as the 12th least environmentally friendly company in the U.S.

Neighboring states, like North Carolina, have in place a renewable fuel portfolio standard, but South Carolina doesn’t. Critics say having a mandatory plan in place to develop renewable energy will increase current energy rates.

“This simply isn’t true,” Clark says. He contends 28 states in the U.S. have lower utility rates than South Carolina and 18 of those states have renewable fuel portfolio standards in place.

“In South Carolina, utilities get what they want. They compete for business, but they stick together in lobbying and public relations efforts. The goal is to get utilities to want to move toward renewable energy sources in a big way, because meaningful legislation is not going to pass without support from utilities in South Carolina,” Clark says.

Right now the overwhelming interest is in producing energy for the lowest amount of money per kilowatt hour. Without a long-term renewable plan in place, coal is going to come out on top for a long, long time, Clark adds.

Even in competition with other fossil fuels, it appears coal will be an ongoing obstacle to developing long-term alternative energy sources, like biomass.

In November, the Paris based International Energy Agency (IEA) projected that by 2035, coal will bypass oil as the primary source of energy worldwide. In 2010 the gap narrowed to 33 percent for oil and 27 percent for coal. By 2035, the agency contends demand will be 30-27 in favor of coal.

Clark says environmental groups have been successful to some extent in other Southeastern states, but South Carolina has not been supportive of biomass. Not all the lack of progress in developing biomass can be attributed to politics, he adds.

“State grant money is either no longer available or is highly competitive and restrictive. Federal dollars are likewise restricted and projects dealing with energy efficiency tend to get more federal funding than biomass research and development,” Clark says.

Tough business environment

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.

Would remove risk

On the other hand, Frederick points out that a sustainable and economically competitive crop, like switchgrass, can remove a great deal of the risk that farmers take annually to grow other high income potential crops.

Biomass crops, if they had a sustainable market, also would be a good replacement for traditional crops that are grown on marginal land.

The state average in South Carolina for soybeans is traditionally around 20 bushels per acre. Low production is in large part due to planting beans on marginal land that would be much better suited to growing biomass.

Frederick points out that growing biomass crops like switchgrass can also improve the productivity of much of the marginal row crop land in South Carolina.

In tests at the PeeDee station, the Clemson agronomist says growing switchgrass for one year has doubled organic matter down to three feet in the soil.

Clearly, there are many agronomic reasons to grow biomass crops. And, there are many long-term advantages to having a sustainable, affordable source of energy for future generations. How to achieve a viable transition from current coal and oil-based energy to biomass-based energy is difficult.

Frederick, who is the driving force behind the annual South Carolina BioEnergy Summit, says communication is the key.

“We continue to work with farmers to develop bioenergy crops and we continue to work with our state’s energy providers, through information exchange like the Summit, and we are making progress toward changing the energy paradigm,” he concludes.

rroberson@farmpress.com