Questions surround second-generation biofuels

Twenty-one billion gallons of second-generation biofuels made from non-grain feedstocks must enter the nation’s fuel supply by 2022, as mandated by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.

These biofuels can be made from perennial grasses, corn stover, hybrid poplar and straw, just to mention a few sources.

Achieving that quantity in 12 years is a bold objective considering that U.S. annual corn-based ethanol production grew by only 9.3 billion gallons in the same amount of time. Corn ethanol expansion occurred using a commodity crop and improving fermentation technologies, both of which were well understood.

Expansion of second-generation biofuels is complex, because it involves numerous participants who have a stake in land-management decisions, and because biomass comes in many varieties and conditions and doesn’t fit into neat commodity grades. The technologies to transform diverse biomass sources will have requirements, whether the process is biochemical like fermentation or thermochemical like gasification or pyrolysis.

Landowners and tenants will want to understand the conversion processes and the viability of businesses that plan to purchase their biomass. Ultimately, landowners and tenants will need quality information and education in order to answer the following questions:

• Can I make money by producing biomass?

• Will removal of biomass hurt my soils?

• Will I deal directly with a processing plant or use a middleman?

• What quality grades and delivery schedules will be required?

• Can I afford to make long-term investments in biomass production when there is risk that the biorefineries might go bankrupt?

• Can government-sponsored programs reduce my risk as a grower?

Growers, loggers, brokers, aggregators, farmers and cooperatives will need to organize so they can offer reliable biomass supplies to feed hungry biorefineries. Model contracts need to be developed that provide protection to both buyers and sellers of biomass. Independent environmental monitoring will be needed to ensure that removal rates of biomass do not deplete the soil or contribute to greenhouse gasses more than other fuel production.

A lot of work must be done to prepare the people managing the lands of this country so that they can be rewarded for supplying the biomass needed for second-generation biofuels. Grower education will be as critical to the economic viability of second-generation biofuels as efforts to perfect conversion technologies.

For more resources and links on renewable energy, visit University of Minnesota Extension’s website at

Douglas G. Tiffany is an energy economist with University of Minnesota Extension.

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