Congressional Bioenergy Briefing
April 29th, 2011
On Tuesday, April 27, the Environmental and Energy Study Institute hosted a congressional briefing entitled Developing Sustainable Biomass Supplies. Presentation slides and an audio recording of the briefing are posted on the Institute’s website.
The briefing began with an overview and update on implementation of the Farm Bill Energy Title programs administered by the Rural Development Agency, as well as the Biomass Crop Assistance Program overseen by the Farm Service Agency. Then Dr. Jeffrey Steiner, the National Program Leader for Biomass Production for the Agricultural Research Service, discussed the challenges to achieving sustainable biomass production. He emphasized the need for a landscape-systems approach to incorporating bioenery crops into existing agricultural systems and the need to ensure a high level of conservation performance for those systems.
The final two speakers focused on research on bioenergy crops at Land Grant Universities. Dr. Jim Doolittle, Director of the North Central Sun Grant Center at South Dakota State University, focused on switchgrass research. He highlighted two research findings. First, each region has a different variety of switchgrass that performs better than others. Switchgrass is a species native to the U.S. and this finding demonstrates the need for greater protection of grassland ecosystems that include switchgrass varieties. The second finding was that as monocultural switchgrass production ramps up in scale, new insect pests are being discovered in switchgrass fields. This result is hardly surprising but does naysay early hype about switchgrass in which some proponents claimed it was a miracle crop that had no pests and would not need fertilizer.
Dr. Sam Jackson of the University of Tennessee and Genera Energy LLC, a company engaged in commercializing cellulosic energy. He also focused on switchgrass, offering a vision of huge acreages of switchgrass grown in monocultures in 20-year rotations, with farmers focused primarily on providing switchgrass feedstock to a single corporation. His presentation did not address the problem of emerging pests and diseases or discuss how his vision for future biomass production would meet sustainability criteria for the environment.