The Hot New Crop with No Real World Application

Prairie Gleanings

Maybe we should hold off on all the biomass research until we have a reason to actually grow it. Just a thought.

Published on: September 13, 2010
University of Illinois’ Emerson Nafziger has a quote he likes to repeat. I’m paraphrasing, but basically he says cellulosic ethanol has been 5 to 10 years away for the past 20 years.

It’s definitely one of those “funny because it’s true” comments. While we’re waiting on cellulosic ethanol to be profitable, I’m getting really tired of reading every week about how wonderful miscanthus, switchgrass and other biomass crops are. If these crops were so good, they’d have a real-world application now.

We’ve got plenty of tax dollars flowing into our universities to determine how to grow, harvest and manage these crops. Yet, the only thing you can currently do with it is drive to a distant plant for it to be pelletized and burned along with coal. Oh, and it might be worth your while if you collect the government subsidy for growing it.

Now, before the biomass junkies jump all over me, I need to mention that I’m not against cellulosic ethanol. It sounds like a great technology. It just hasn’t been fully realized yet.

However, everywhere I look, folks are pushing farmers to grow this stuff now. It seems like a colossal cart-before-the-horse scenario.

Let’s say they figure out how to make cellulosic ethanol profitable tomorrow. Then, they started building new ethanol plants like gangbusters. Or, maybe they’d retrofit the current ones. Either way, there would probably be at least a year of lag before the market really demanded high quantities of biomass.

I’m not certain about all the intricacies with biomass production, but I’ve met a lot of farmers. One thing I know about them, if there’s money to be made somewhere, they’ll get it done. A year is plenty of lag to get biomass crops in the ground and start turning a profit on it.

In the meantime, is it really the best use of tax payer dollars to research every aspect of this stuff? What if someone invents a battery that’s exponentially more efficient? Then we go to all electric cars. Seems like all that miscanthus research would be in vain.

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