Energy grasses like Miscanthus and switchgrass have shown promise in the renewable energy sector.
However, Jody Endres, University of Illinois professor of energy and environmental law and chair of the Council on Sustainable Biomass Production, notes standards are needed to bring farmers, ethanol producers and other industry members on the same page in order to propel the fledgling crops to the next level. She says three conditions must be met before standards become a reality.
"First, to achieve public acceptance, standards must be built upon foundations of good governance," Endres said. "Environmental and social advocacy groups should be included at some level in the process. For example, we're discussing what standards the aviation sector should recognize to meet their sustainability expectations. Instead of the substantive innerworkings of standards' principles, such as protections for air, water, soil, biodiversity, and community values, debate has centered on the level of participation and transparency standards development observes, and particularly whether a standard meets environmental groups' governance demands."
Next, standards must be in place that help bolster producers' sustainability toolbox. This is key to evaluating energy grasses effects on conservation. For example, when looking at water quality, baselines need to be set in order to evaluate changes in practices.
The third precondition for successful standard implementation is international harmonization. "Even if the biomass goes to the biorefinery with the right lignin-to-sugar content and the right amount of water, if you had to add nitrogen to produce it, or lost habitat or soil when harvesting it, it may not comply with European regulations," Endres explains.
The European Renewable Energy Directive provides a baseline framework for sustainability reporting and requirements.
"They're primarily concerned with land conversion—high carbon stock land or lands that are high in biodiversity values," Endres notes. "They also require a cross-compliance with agro- environmental laws, which is something required in return for receipt of agricultural payments under the Common Agricultural Program. In large part, we don't have a similar system in the United States. We have requirements for highly erodible land and protection of endangered species, but in Europe there's a broader program specifically designed for agricultural contexts to comply with environmental law and to improve the environment."
Adopting European standards is not a simple task for U.S. growers. Endres points out that for the past three years, the Council for Sustainable Biomass Production has been developing a standard that the European Commission will recognize, but one that is at the same time one designed for American growers to implement practically on the ground and that deploys tools such as those developed by USDA and Extension.