e s f home link - e s f college of environmental science and forestry
e s f home link - e s f college of environmental science and forestry

New York farms can make biofuels more viable

Editorial from the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle



(September 17, 2006) — Larry Smart and Timothy Volk see the power in willow. Willow shrubs, to be exact. The SUNY scientists in Syracuse say ethanol made from willow and other plants that grow well upstate has lots of potential as an energy resource. It could be even more effective than corn-based ethanol at supplanting foreign oil.

But taking the biofuel work of scientists like these from a successful experiment to a commercially viable business will take the strong support of government, farmers and the business community.

As with fuel cells, the competition for the biofuels industry is serious. This region will have to be nimble and smart to grab its share of the market.

The impetus for action is a federal mandate requiring oil refiners to use 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol in gasoline annually by 2012. It's promising that the state's first corn-ethanol refinery, being built by Seneca County's Empire Biofuels, could be operational by 2008. However, the large amount of energy required to produce corn-based ethanol, and the fact that New York soil is better suited for other crops, make it unlikely that corn will be the best solution. That's why it's important to support the commercialization of other forms of ethanol, like that made from the willows growing at the State University College of Environmental Science and Forestry. They're not weeping willow trees. They're specially engineered willow shrubs and other short-rotation crops that mature quickly.

Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley's Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory have found that twice the energy can be produced from these willow shrubs than from corn. SUNY ESF scientists and others say the potential is even greater. But it will take time and investment to start producing this kind of ethanol on a large scale.

Gov. Pataki has wisely ordered state agencies and public authorities to increase their use of biofuels to help drive the market. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority is offering incentives, including grants of up to $100,000, to assist in the planning and construction of bio-refineries. These grants are good steps.

The federal government must step up, too. It has invested in the construction of the more than 100 corn ethanol refineries situated mostly in the Midwest. Congress has handed out $37 billion in corn subsidies over the past decade, mainly in the heartland. Upstate deserves some of this attention.

New York's delegation should push the federal government to provide at least comparable support for nascent biofuels in the Northeast. There are proposals for several biorefineries throughout upstate New York, including a pilot ethanol plant in the Adirondacks that would use the techniques of SUNY ESF scientists. That would mean more work for this region's farmers and more jobs at refineries.

The state also can support the commercialization of biofuels by offering a production tax credit for biofuel companies and incentives to bring farmland back into production for willow crops.

Farmers who take a chance growing such new crops will need insurance and help with costs. Remarkably, Brazil has used sugar cane-based ethanol to replace 40 percent of its gasoline supply. It declared independence from Mideast oil this year.

With the help of fields of willow, upstate can help America cut a similar path and keep more farmers in the Rochester region busy.