It looks to be good for the environment, but will cellulosic ethanol be good for growers' pocketbooks?
A University of Nebraska study growing switchgrass on farms shows it costs $60/ton of dry matter to produce the crop for biomass. Yet U.S. Department of Energy estimates a biomass feedstock cost of $35/dry ton, a figure that needs updating, say forage experts.
“A farmer would have to sell biomass for $100/ton to make a profit. Cellulosic companies were originally talking about $20/ton delivered. There's a big difference,” says University of Wisconsin extension forage specialist Dan Undersander.
He feels two things are needed to make biomass successful: many acres of biomass within a short hauling distance of a biorefinery and a crop that can provide two streams of income (see page 34).
Michael Russelle, USDA-ARS soil scientist, is also concerned about feedstock prices and their impact.
“People expect that the cellulosic fuel industry is going to be highly profitable, but the industry is looking at it the other way around. They're thinking of their product as profitable and the only way it can be is with cheap feedstocks. So annual crop residues will be the first thing looked at.” That could lead to rapid declines in soil organic matter, he warns.