Experts: Alabama switchgrass production would be on large scale

Many Alabamians assume that with the adoption of switchgrass and other forms of cellulosic ethanol crops the state will return to a golden age of farming reminiscent of the Waltons.

That’s not necessarily true, according to two Auburn University experts.

Granted, both have little doubt the widespread use of these cellulosic crops, whenever this occurs, will translate into a huge boon for the state’s economy, but not in the way most people imagine.

“I don’t know what the switchgrass sector is going to look like, but I suspect it’s not going to look like Grandma and Grandpa Walton on the mountain,” says Robert Goodman, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System economist and Auburn University associate professor of agricultural economics. “I think it’s going to look more like sugarcane farming in Brazil.”

By that, Goodman means large-scale, corporate-style farming rather than one patterned after family farming.

“It’s likely going to be more profitable to grow these types of crops on a vast scale — on 50,000-acre farms with huge machines and very investment intensive operations — nothing like we have now.”

Sharing this view is Joseph Molnar, Auburn University professor of rural sociology, who stresses that conversion of biomass ethanol is, by nature, “an industrial and not a backyard process.” Molnar also believes switchgrass initially may be outdone by another lucrative source of cellulose — wood — which Alabama possesses in abundance.

“We already have an existing system for refining and distributing gasoline, and, undoubtedly, corn ethanol and wood-based ethanol will evolve alongside that,” Molnar says, adding that the regions best suited to capitalize on this asset are west and southwest Alabama, where petroleum refineries already are located.

“These would be natural places to put wood alcohol production facilities because the distribution and technical know-how already are in place,” Molnar says. In fact, the ethanol not only could be blended with gas but distributed through existing pipelines, he adds.

One thing is certain, Molnar says. Until a cost-efficient means is developed to convert cellulosic materials such as wood and switchgrass into ethanol, Alabama, along with most states in the Southeast will remain “on the outside looking in” — at least, in terms of profiting from the spike in corn-based ethanol use.

“We can grow some corn and open some processing plant capacity, but this sort of production is going to occur primarily in the Midwest, with the good soils and high yields.”

A number of bioenergy experts have pointed to Alabama as an ideal location for growing a new generation of cellulosic-derived ethanol crops — and they’re right, Molnar says.

“We’ve got a year-round growing season, which means we could be growing and harvesting these sorts of products — wood and switchgrass, for example — practically all the time.”

For now, at least, Molnar says all of this depends on whether science can develop the technology to enable industry to capitalize on these sources.

“The future really is in the hands of chemical engineers,” he says. “If they can find a way to reduce the cost of producing cellulosic ethanol and make it closer to corn-derived ethanol, then Alabama is going to look pretty good.

“Alabama — and the Southeast — could be pretty big players in all of this.”

The Bush administration has vowed to spend billions of dollars to bridge this technological gap. In fact, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns recently announced plans to propose $1.6 billion in new funding for renewable energy, with a focus on cellulosic energy research and production as part of the administration's 2007 farm bill proposals.

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