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    The Colorado Wood Utilization and Marketing Program at Colorado State University received a $65,000 grant from the U.S. Forest Service to expand the use of woody biomass throughout Colorado. The purpose of the U.S. Department of Agriculture grant program is to provide financial assistance to state foresters to accelerate the adoption of woody biomass as an alternative energy source. Colorado State University - October 12, 2007.

    Indian company Naturol Bioenergy Limited announced that it will soon start production from its biodiesel facility at Kakinada, in the state of Andhra Pradesh. The facility has an annual production capacity of 100,000 tons of biodiesel and 10,000 tons of pharmaceutical grade glycerin. The primary feedstock is crude palm oil, but the facility was designed to accomodate a variety of vegetable oil feedstocks. Biofuel Review - October 11, 2007.

    Brazil's state energy company Petrobras says it will ship 9 million liters of ethanol to European clients next month in its first shipment via the northeastern port of Suape. Petrobras buys the biofuel from a pool of sugar cane processing plants in the state of Pernambuco, where the port is also located. Reuters - October 11, 2007.

    Dynamotive Energy Systems Corporation, a leader in biomass-to-biofuel technology, announces that it has completed a $10.5 million equity financing with Quercus Trust, an environmentally oriented fund, and several other private investors. Ardour Capital Inc. of New York served as financial advisor in the transaction. Business Wire - October 10, 2007.

    Cuban livestock farmers are buying distillers dried grains (DDG), the main byproduct of corn based ethanol, from biofuel producers in the U.S. During a trade mission of Iowan officials to Cuba, trade officials there said the communist state will double its purchases of the dried grains this year. DesMoines Register - October 9, 2007.

    Brasil Ecodiesel, the leading Brazilian biodiesel producer company, recorded an increase of 57.7% in sales in the third quarter of the current year, in comparison with the previous three months. Sales volume stood at 53,000 cubic metres from August until September, against 34,000 cubic metres of the biofuel between April and June. The company is also concluding negotiations to export between 1,000 to 2,000 tonnes of glycerine per month to the Asian market. ANBA - October 4, 2007.

    PolyOne Corporation, the US supplier of specialised polymer materials, has opened a new colour concentrates manufacturing plant in Kutno, Poland. Located in central Poland, the new plant will produce colour products in the first instance, although the company says the facility can be expanded to handle other products. In March, the Ohio-based firm launched a range of of liquid colourants for use in bioplastics in biodegradable applications. The concentrates are European food contact compliant and can be used in polylactic acid (PLA) or starch-based blends. Plastics & Rubber Weekly - October 2, 2007.

    A turbo-charged, spray-guided direct-injection engine running on pure ethanol (E100) can achieve very high specific output, and shows “significant potential for aggressive engine downsizing for a dedicated or dual-fuel solution”, according to engineers at Orbital Corporation. GreenCarCongress - October 2, 2007.

    UK-based NiTech Solutions receives £800,000 in private funding to commercialize a cost-saving industrial mixing system, dubbed the Continuous Oscillatory Baffled Reactor (COBR), which can lower costs by 50 per cent and reduce process time by as much as 90 per cent during the manufacture of a range of commodities including chemicals, drugs and biofuels. Scotsman - October 2, 2007.

    A group of Spanish investors is building a new bioethanol plant in the western region of Extremadura that should be producing fuel from maize in 2009. Alcoholes Biocarburantes de Extremadura (Albiex) has already started work on the site near Badajoz and expects to spend €42/$59 million on the plant in the next two years. It will produce 110 million litres a year of bioethanol and 87 million kg of grain byproduct that can be used for animal feed. Europapress - September 28, 2007.

    Portuguese fuel company Prio SA and UK based FCL Biofuels have joined forces to launch the Portuguese consumer biodiesel brand, PrioBio, in the UK. PrioBio is scheduled to be available in the UK from 1st November. By the end of this year (2007), says FCL Biofuel, the partnership’s two biodiesel refineries will have a total capacity of 200,000 tonnes which will is set to grow to 400,000 tonnes by the end of 2010. Biofuel Review - September 27, 2007.

    According to Tarja Halonen, the Finnish president, one third of the value of all of Finland's exports consists of environmentally friendly technologies. Finland has invested in climate and energy technologies, particularly in combined heat and power production from biomass, bioenergy and wind power, the president said at the UN secretary-general's high-level event on climate change. Newroom Finland - September 25, 2007.

    Spanish engineering and energy company Abengoa says it had suspended bioethanol production at the biggest of its three Spanish plants because it was unprofitable. It cited high grain prices and uncertainty about the national market for ethanol. Earlier this year, the plant, located in Salamanca, ceased production for similar reasons. To Biopact this is yet another indication that biofuel production in the EU/US does not make sense and must be relocated to the Global South, where the biofuel can be produced competitively and sustainably, without relying on food crops. Reuters - September 24, 2007.

    The Midlands Consortium, comprised of the universities of Birmingham, Loughborough and Nottingham, is chosen to host Britain's new Energy Technologies Institute, a £1 billion national organisation which will aim to develop cleaner energies. University of Nottingham - September 21, 2007.

    The EGGER group, one of the leading European manufacturers of chipboard, MDF and OSB boards has begun work on installing a 50MW biomass boiler for its production site in Rion. The new furnace will recycle 60,000 tonnes of offcuts to be used in the new combined heat and power (CHP) station as an ecological fuel. The facility will reduce consumption of natural gas by 75%. IHB Network - September 21, 2007.

    Analysts fear that record oil prices will fuel general inflation in Kenya, particularly hitting the poorest hard. They call for the development of new policies and strategies to cope with sustained high oil prices. Such policies include alternative fuels like biofuels, conservation measures, and more investments in oil and gas exploration. The poor in Kenya are hit hardest by the sharp increase, because they spend most of their budget on fuel and transport. Furthermore, in oil intensive economies like Kenya, high oil prices push up prices for food and most other basic goods. All Africa - September 20, 2007.

    Finland's Metso Power has won an order to supply Kalmar Energi Värme AB with a biomass-fired power boiler for the company’s new combined heat and power plant in Kalmar on the east coast of Sweden. Start-up for the plant is scheduled for the end of 2009. The value of the order is approximately EUR 55 million. The power boiler (90 MWth) will utilize bubbling fluidized bed technology and will burn biomass replacing old district heating boilers and reducing the consumption of oil. The delivery will also include a flue gas condensing system to increase plant's district heat production. Metso Corporation - September 19, 2007.

    Jo-Carroll Energy announced today its plan to build an 80 megawatt, biomass-fueled, renewable energy center in Illinois. The US$ 140 million plant will be fueled by various types of renewable biomass, such as clean waste wood, corn stover and switchgrass. Jo-Carroll Energy - September 18, 2007.

    Beihai Gofar Marine Biological Industry Co Ltd, in China's southern region of Guangxi, plans to build a 100,000 tonne-per-year fuel ethanol plant using cassava as feedstock. The Shanghai-listed company plans to raise about 560 million yuan ($74.5 million) in a share placement to finance the project and boost its cash flow. Reuters - September 18, 2007.

    The oil-dependent island state of Fiji has requested US company Avalor Capital, LLC, to invest in biodiesel and ethanol. The Fiji government has urged the company to move its $250million 'Fiji Biofuels Project' forward at the earliest possible date. Fiji Live - September 18, 2007.

    The Bowen Group, one of Ireland's biggest construction groups has announced a strategic move into the biomass energy sector. It is planning a €25 million investment over the next five years to fund up to 100 projects that will create electricity from biomass. Its ambition is to install up to 135 megawatts of biomass-fuelled heat from local forestry sources, which is equal to 50 million litres or about €25m worth of imported oil. Irish Examiner - September 16, 2007.

    According to Dr Niphon Poapongsakorn, dean of Economics at Thammasat University in Thailand, cassava-based ethanol is competitive when oil is above $40 per barrel. Thailand is the world's largest producer and exporter of cassava for industrial use. Bangkok Post - September 14, 2007.

    German biogas and biodiesel developer BKN BioKraftstoff Nord AG has generated gross proceeds totaling €5.5 million as part of its capital increase from authorized capital. Ad Hoc News - September 13, 2007.

    NewGen Technologies, Inc. announced that it and Titan Global Holdings, Inc. completed a definitive Biofuels Supply Agreement which will become effective upon Titan’s acquisition of Appalachian Oil Company. Given APPCO’s current distribution of over 225 million gallons of fuel products per year, the initial expected ethanol supply to APPCO should exceed 1 million gallons a month. Charlotte dBusinessNews - September 13, 2007.

    Oil prices reach record highs as the U.S. Energy Information Agency releases a report that showed crude oil inventories fell by more than seven million barrels last week. The rise comes despite a decision by the international oil cartel, OPEC, to raise its output quota by 500,000 barrels. Reuters - September 12, 2007.

    OPEC decided today to increase the volume of crude supplied to the market by Member Countries (excluding Angola and Iraq) by 500,000 b/d, effective 1 November 2007. The decision comes after oil reached near record-highs and after Saudi Aramco announced that last year's crude oil production declined by 1.7 percent, while exports declined by 3.1 percent. OPEC - September 11, 2007.

    GreenField Ethanol and Monsanto Canada launch the 'Gro-ethanol' program which invites Ontario's farmers to grow corn seed containing Monsanto traits, specifically for the ethanol market. The corn hybrids eligible for the program include Monsanto traits that produce higher yielding corn for ethanol production. MarketWire - September 11, 2007.

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Monday, October 15, 2007

ESA satellites help ensure more efficient use of pesticides

A new service, developed in the framework of a European Space Agency (ESA)-supported project, is using satellite images to compare agricultural crop sites across Europe in order to ensure the more efficient use of pesticides. The global transition towards the bioeconomy, which entails an agricultural revolution of planet-wide dimensions, will have to rely ever more intensively on satellite data and services like this one to guarantee its long term sustainability (earlier examples, here and here).

Pesticides currently used within the European Union (EU) must be registered with the national members of the European and Mediterranean Plant Protection Organization (EPPO), which requires efficiency data derived from field trials. EPPO has defined zones of comparable climates across Europe that allow data generated in one country to support registration in another country within the same climatic zone.

The new service called Site Similarity Certification (SSC), merges satellite images with conventional data like temperature, precipitation, soil characteristics and recurring natural phenomena to improve the scientific approach in defining comparable zones and the transferability of field trial results achieved in one EU member state to another:
In view of the needs for testing and regulating Plant Protection Products within EPPO member countries, the continuation of the already successfully started efforts to integrate the use of satellite images into the process of pesticide registration seems to be a promising tool. Satellite images are intended to be used to prove the similarity of trial sites and herewith to improve the procedure of mutual recognition of trial results throughout Europe, which is one of the aims of EPPO. - Dr Udo Heimbach a member of the EPPO Working Party said.
Proving the comparability of cropping sites saves the pesticide industry from carrying out expensive perennial trials, allows field trials to be planned more efficiently and creates the possibility of substituting missing field trials for Site Similarity Certifications:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Spatial Business Integration GmbH developed this new service as part of an ESA Earth Observation Market Development (EOMD) project. EOMD is a programme aimed at strengthening the European and Canadian capacity to provide geoinformation services based mainly on Earth Observation data, with a particular emphasis on addressing the needs of small value-adding companies.

Image: Long-term average satellite image information for comparison of trial sites via crop condition. Weekly comparison of changes in biomass productivity of sites in Germany and Poland (click to enlarge). Source: ESA.

European Space Agency: Satellites help ensure efficient use of pesticides - October 15, 2007.

Website of the European and Mediterranean Plant Protection Organization.

Biopact: Satellites play vital role in understanding the carbon cycle - April 26, 2007

Biopact: India to roll out real-time data on all standing crops - towards 'planetary biomass management' - October 02, 2007

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Oil prices smash records again - catastrophe for poor countries persists

World oil prices smashed the psychological barrier of $85 per barrel today. The economy crippling catastrophe for poor oil importing developing countries thus persist. Biofuels - with all their drawbacks - or extremely expensive oil? The question is more relevant than ever; the call of African governments to switch to biofuels to prevent what they call a 'pan-African disaster' in the making is more legitimate than ever.

Biopact therefor keeps urging the development, energy, economics and agricultural think tanks of this world to produce more robust analyses showing the effects of record oil prices on the economies and societies of the least developed countries (LDCs). There are few such assessments, and they depict a grim reality, but they are of a qualitative nature only (earlier post). Quantitative data will show whether biofuels can help the poorest societies survive the current oil shocks.

Each percentage-point increase in the price of oil can be felt immediately throughout all social and economic sectors of the poorest countries. These societies - of the 47 poorest nations, 38 are net importers of oil, and 25 are fully dependent on imports (more here) - are energy intensive and spend between 10 and 15% of their GDP on imported petroleum products. OECD countries spend only between 2 and 3% and have the financial and technical tools to protect themselves from oil shocks. LDCs don't. No wonder then that several African governments have started looking at biofuels as their own tool to hedge against the catastrophe. For them, the 'energy security' argument in favor of biofuels does clearly make sense (earlier post in which Senegal's president calls a switch to biofuels an urgent matter to save African economies).

Several developing countries have already called the effects of the current situation 'disastrous' and 'outrageous' as they wreck chances for development: record oil prices push up general inflation, destroy debt relief efforts and fuel unemployment. They especially weaken states' capacities to spend on public goods (education, health care, poverty alleviation - some are already spending twice to thrice as much on oil than on health care), and lead to higher food and fuel prices - two types of products on which the poor spend most of their budget. Moreover, they severely impact production processes for small and medium enterprises, and they dramatically diminish farmers' capacities to produce and market agricultural products. All these effects are known quite well and have been described in qualitative terms. But the need for strong quantitative analyses is now more urgent than ever. Such data will allow for a cost-benefit analysis and indicate whether a switch to less costly biofuels makes sense, under which kind of circumstances.

The disastrous record oil prices are the result of a supply threat caused by heightened tensions between Turkey and Kurdish rebels in the northern region of crude producer Iraq. The powerful OPEC oil exporters' cartel, meanwhile, froze its estimate for world crude demand growth in 2007 despite the record-breaking news. In afternoon trading here on Monday, New York's main futures contract, light sweet crude for delivery in November, spiked to an historic 85.30 dollars per barrel. The contract expires at the close:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

London's Brent North Sea crude for November delivery soared to a fresh all-time high of 81.94 dollars per barrel. "The tensions on the Turkish-Iraqi border have really pushed the price up," said Adrian Bingham-Walker at CMC Markets. "It's a new supply threat and prices have just kept on hitting new highs today. As it's hitting these highs, it's attracting more and more buyers."

Monday's record-breaking run - which beat the previous all-time highs set last month - also came amid concerns over stretched global energy supplies. Traders are fearful of soaring heating fuel demand in the northern hemisphere winter.

Later Monday, Brent crude stood at 81.58 dollars, marking a jump of 1.03 dollars from Friday's close. New York crude showed a hefty gain of 1.20 dollars at 84.89 dollars.

The Turkish government met Monday to prepare a motion seeking parliamentary approval for a military incursion into neighbouring Iraq to crack down on Kurdish rebel bases there. The motion will be sent to parliament "once it is signed by all the ministers," a government official told AFP.

The cabinet is expected to seek a one-year authorisation for a military operation in northern Iraq, where an estimated 3,500 rebels of the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) are based. The Turkish army said at the weekend that it had shelled Iraqi territory after PKK rebels attacked a military outpost with rockets and gunfire from across the border.

Oil market traders "are still worried about possible tension with Turkey and Iraq on the northern borders," explained Sucden analyst Robert Montefusco. "It's being discussed in Turkish parliament at the moment over whether it is legal for them to go and invade.

He added: "There's no lost production at the moment, so it's only perceived that we could lose some production if any of the pipelines are affected in that region from Iraq." "That is the main concern at the moment."

Elsewhere, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) forecast that 2007 world oil demand growth would stand at 1.3 million barrels per day (bpd) or 1.5 percent The estimate, contained in OPEC's monthly report for October, was unchanged from the previous figure given in September.

The Vienna-based cartel added that demand for fuel and heating oil in the fourth quarter to December "is forecast to be strong." World oil demand growth during the period "is estimated to follow typically high seasonal consumption (patterns) due to the expected normal winter in the northern hemisphere," the report added. It put world oil demand growth at 1.8 million bpd for the last three months of 2007.

Image: petrol street vendor in Togo. High oil prices kill chances for development.

Biopact: High oil prices disastrous for developing countries - September 12, 2007

Biopact: India: 'outrageous' oil price damages economy, as $80pb could be new floor price - September 27, 2007

Biopact: Senegal's president explains the urgency of biofuels development in the South - November 02, 2006

Ralf Krüger: Impact of high oil prices on oil-importing countries in Africa [*.pdf], UNECA - Project LINK meeting, Fall 2006, Geneva.

African Development Bank Group: Can Struggling African Economies Survive Escalating Oil Prices?

African Development Bank Group: High Oil Prices and the African Economy [*.doc] - Concept paper prepared for the 2006 African Development Bank Annual Meetings Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

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Abengoa Bioenergy opens cellulosic ethanol pilot plant in the U.S.

Abengoa Bioenergy has opened a pilot plant for the conversion of biomass in the State of Nebraska, in the United States. The plant, which involves an investment of more than US$35 million, will be exclusively dedicated to the research and development of second-generation biofuel production processes from lignocellulosic biomass, the earth's most abundant organic feedstock, as part of an agreement signed with the US Department of Energy in 2003.

The pilot plant is the first of its kind; it will serve as a platform for testing new equipment, systems and catalysts necessary to break down various organic compounds and process them, such as herbaceous and woody materials, thus optimizing ethanol production. The plant will also be a research and training centre for other teams in Abengoa Bioenergy whilst the company evaluates and tests additional products, equipment and other processes being designed at present to improve organic biomass processes.
By producing ethanol from lignocellulosic biomass, Abengoa Bioenergy reaches a key aim in its technological plan within those parameters foreseen in their research and investigation program. - Javier Salgado, President and CEO of Abengoa Bioenergy
Compared with dry-mill process, production of ethanol from agricultural residues, specifically, corn stover and wheat straw, requires extensive processing to release the polymeric sugars in cellulose and hemicellulose that account for 30 to 50% and 20 to 35% of plant material, respectively. Abengoa's enzymatic hydrolysis biorefinery process (schematic, click to enlarge) fractionates biomass into major constituents, hydrolyzes the carbohydrates to sugars for ethanol fermentation. It strivs for compatibility with cereal ethanol production process to achieve synergistic gains when integrating biomass enzymatic hydrolysis and fermentation with cereal ethanol production facility (for example, the two processes could share utilities and even certain process equipment). Abenoa uses Aspen Plus process simulation software to model various process options and evaluate the overall technoeconomic performance of the processes.

The Spanish-owned pilot plant opened in York (Nebraska) today, will allow Abengoa to research and test proprietary technology for use in commercial-scale conversion of biomass into ethanol. The new technologies obtained will be implemented at the biomass biorefinery that the company is building in Kansas, the first of its kind. Earlier this year, this project received US$76 million in funding from the U.S. DOE (previous post).

The Kansas plant will process daily 700 metric tons of biomass to produce 44 million liters of ethanol per year as well as other forms of enewable energy such as electricity and steam. The biomass plant will be situated next to a conventional ethanol plant capable of producing 88 million gallons (more than 300 million liters), which will allow both facilities the benefit of a combined capacity of 100 million gallons (more than 400 million liters). The investment of both will exceed US$300 million:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Abengoa Bioenergy´s pilot plant in Nebraska plays a fundamental roll in the U.S. Department of Energy´s Biofuels Initiative the aim of which is to reduce gasoline consumption by 20% in 10 years.

Abengoa Bioenergy has long been committed to biomass conversion, a raw material which offers environmental advantages allowing the use of materials normally discarded in grain and crop production for sustainable energy production.

The Nebraska Governor, Dave Heineman, who presided over the opening ceremony, highlighted the importance of these initiatives to reduce the reliance on imported oil, combat pollution and create economic opportunities in rural and urban Nebraska.

Furthermore, during the ceremony, Javier Salgado announced a collaboration agreement signed with the US Department of Energy (DOE) for the sum of 38 million dollars for the design and development of the first commercial-scale biomass into ethanol plant in Hugoton, Kansas.

Abengoa Bioenergy
has a presence in three global bioethanol markets - the United States, Brazil and Europe - and says it will invest more than US$500 million in the next five years in cellulosic biofuels.

The company currently has a total annual production capacity of more than one billion litres. Abengoa Bioenergy operates three bioethanol production plants in Spain at present, with an installed annual capacity of more than 500 million liters.

Abengoa Bioenergy: Abengoa Bioenergy opens pilot plant for the energy of the future - October 15, 2007.

Biopact: U.S. Dept. of Energy awards $385 million to 6 cellulosic ethanol plants, out of $1.2 billion - March 01, 2007

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Geneticist finds switchgrass could bridge bioenergy and conservation

An important part of the answer to today's energy woes could be blowing in grasslands, according to Agricultural Research Service (ARS) plant geneticist Michael Casler. He has spent the past 10 years breeding switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), a plant native to the U.S. that was an integral part of the tall grass prairies that once dominated America's Midwest. In a new study, part of the ARS' Rangeland, Pasture, and Forages program, he presents findings which show that the switchgrass varieties conservationists are keen on using for reestablishing vanished prairies, are genetically similar to the varieties with a high bioenergy potential.

As a breeder, Casler is mostly concerned with the plant's bioenergy-friendly attributes, including its ability to accumulate large amounts of biomass and tolerate environmental stress. Some quick facts about switchgrass as a biomass crop first:
  • a recent ARS study on energy cropping systems shows switchgrass and hybrid poplar would produce nearly a three-fold greater reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to corn or soybean rotations (earlier post)
  • as a perennial, switchgrass has deep roots with which the crop acts to increase soil carbon levels; boosting carbon storage in the soil mitigates the greenhouse effect and improves soil quality
  • the energy balance of switchgrass based biofuels is up to between 5 and 10 times stronger than biofuels made from food crops like corn and soybean
  • scientists have determined the sequences of about 12,000 switchgrass gene fragments so far; at least 12 of them are associated with genes that regulate the production and deposition of lignin, the cementing agent that holds plant cell walls together; this identification allows for the breeding of low-lignin varieties that can be converted more easily into liquid fuels
These basics show switchgrass is a highly promising energy crop. With this in mind, Casler began looking at switchgrass for more potential benefits: could the crop function as a restorer of once-pristine prairies? (For earlier examples of coupling bioenergy to conservation, see here and here). Historically, a sprawling seas of grasses once stretched from Montana and the Dakotas down to Texas, with pockets of prairie as far east as New York. Now, with much of this land fragmented or altered, only a patchwork of remnant prairies remains.

Numerous conservation efforts are examining how best to revive these vestigial prairies. But a question of genealogy always arises: which switchgrass varieties should be planted that will be in keeping with a site's genetic legacy? Some conservationists insist on using only long-established, local varieties of switchgrass. Others argue that modern-day cultivars can appropriately be used. Along with ARS scientist Kenneth Vogel, Casler set out to bring clarity to this debate and, hopefully, ease the task of grassland restoration:
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After two summers spent trekking native Midwestern prairies, plucking samples and sending them back to his laboratory, Casler discovered that today's agronomically important switchgrass cultivars are nearly identical genetically to their grassy ancestors.

Casler’s switchgrass subjects had their differences, but hardly any were attributable to broad geographic disparities. Actually, aside from subtle differences owed to variations in soil, climate, and slope, the broad switchgrass pool sitting before Casler was pretty homogeneous.

Plants from each individual population were as variable as those from geographically distant populations, and the remnant populations were very similar to the cultivars, he says. Part of this can be explained by the fact that people have been breeding switchgrass for only about 50 years, compared to the thousands of years of domesticating modern wheat or corn.

In fact, the most advanced cultivars he analyzed are only three to four generations removed from wild switchgrass, says Casler. He adds that these breeding-induced changes are small, since breeders only exploited a small amount of genetic variation already existing in native switchgrasses.

The good news about these findings is that so-called 'improved' switchgrass cultivars are, genetically speaking, very similar to populations of plants being used for native restoration. The difference between native and cultivated switchgrass is probably due to changes in the frequency of just a few genes that have little overall impact on switchgrass gene pools.

These findings make switchgrass, which was already enjoying modest agricultural fanfare, especially attractive.
Our findings show that switchgrass that’s grown for biofuel can also be grown for conservation and other uses without the fear of possible genetic contamination. We need to pay attention to the origin of switchgrass seed populations, but we’ve learned that seeds can be transferred widely within the hardiness zone in which they originated. - Michael Casler
Switchgrass as a source of renewable energy still requires more research before its full potential is realized. Casler says that the plant’s biofuel future probably lies in specially designed seed mixtures with supporting role-type plants—including beneficial legumes that fix their own nitrogen.

If Casler’s right, fields of soft, willowy switchgrass growing alongside native legumes like pure prairie clover and Illinois bundleflower could someday provide us with a source of green energy as well as a window into our country’s verdant past.

The study's findings are good news for prairie restorers, who can confidently tap a wider pool of switchgrass cultivars and local varieties for conservation projects. And switchgrass growers can take satisfaction knowing their fields still are, in many ways, symbolic of the country's rich grassy past.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific research agency.

Image courtesy
: Stephen Ausmus.

ARS: Switchgrass: Bridging Bioenergy and Conservation - September 13, 2007.

ARS: Scientists Turn Genetic Keys to Unlock Bioenergy in Switchgrass - April 20, 2007.

ARS: Energy Farming With Switchgrass Saves Carbon - July 19, 2007

Biopact: European project finds nitrogen damages biodiversity - biomass stripping coupled to bioenergy could offer conservation strategy - October 13, 2007

Biopact: Tallgrass Prairie Center to implement Tilman's mixed grass findings - September 02, 2007

Biopact: Study: greenhouse gas balance of different energy cropping systems - June 18, 2007

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Energy major Total will not invest in wind power - the base-load fallacy

During a conference on the future of energy, French oil major Total stated [*French] it will not invest in wind power as the technology cannot deliver base-load power and is plagued by its intermittent nature which requires backup by other sources. Speaking in Paris, CEO Christophe de Margerie outlined the company's 'post-oil' priorities and said it will instead focus on the development of bioenergy and solar power.

Total wants to leave the wind energy sector to others and will not invest in the technology because it can only thrive when base-load power is supplied by other sources like coal and natural gas. In his presentation, de Margerie referred to the situation in Germany, world leader in the sector, where the bulk of 'intermittent' electricity generated from wind turbines is supplemented by electricity obtained from the combustion of coal. The sector's expansion fuels the utilization of more coal. Thus the base-load based on fossil fuels contributes to climate change and air pollution, which makes wind power in practise a 'dirty' energy source.

Biopact sees this as a flawed attempt to discredit wind power. The 'base-load fallacy' [*.pdf], as the argumentation has been called, is quite old and has been debunked convincingly, many times. First of all, there are quite a few examples of large, distributed wind power systems which overcome the problem of base-load power and only need a small amount of back-up. Secondly, new energy storage technologies for both wind (advanced adiabatic compressed air energy storage; energy islands) and solar thermal are being developed and are expected to be commercially viable soon.

Finally, Total says one of its renewable energy priorities is bioenergy. It thus presents a strange contradiction, because if there is one type of renewable energy that resembles coal's capacity to provide robust base-load energy, it is biomass (either in solid, liquid or gaseous form). Wind power and bioenergy can be perfectly coupled in a synergetic, fully renewable energy concept, with biomass power stations providing the base and wind generating the supplemental energy:
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Biomass can be stored, distributed and traded physically, so power plants can be located close enough to wind farms and provide decentralised, fully renewable energy without reliance on fossil fuels. Obviously, biomass can simply replace coal or can be co-fired with it - a practise that is becoming ever more common. Cost can no longer be an objection, because biomass has already become competitive with coal, which is fetching record prices (previous post). In a recent survey, Europe's leading energy analysts agree on strong prices for all fossil fuels used for baseload power generation over the longer term (more here).

At the conference, Total said it is only interested in biomass, both for the production of liquid and gaseous transport fuels as well as for the production of power, and in solar energy. Remarkably, solar energy currently has the same intermittency and base-load problems, so it remains a mystery as to why wind power is discarded by Total.

Energy majors play an important role in informing the public about the advantages and disadvantages of renewables. However, the era of clean and renewable energy also requires them to represent these facts in a responsible way. Renewables should not be pitted against each other in an antagonistic way; instead, they must be seen as part of a synergetic development in which the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, decentralisation, and energy security are key. Combined in integrated systems, renewables can perfectly take us beyond fossil fuels.

Le Figaro: L'éolien pas pour Total - October 10, 2007.

Couleur France: Total refuse les éoliennes - October 10, 2007.

Mark Diesendorf, "The Base Load Fallacy", EnergyScience, Briefing Papers, n° 16.

Biopact: Centre for European Economic Research survey: experts see rising prices for all energy commodities over the next five years - October 06, 2007

Biopact: Coal prices hit records too - time for biomass? - October 03, 2007

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