Wow, that was fast. Just last summer, we noticed that scientists at Cornell University were developing shrub willow biofuel as a means of helping New York farmers to squeeze extra income from marginal land, and before the ink has dried on the research papers, we’re getting news of a 1,100 acre shrub willow biofuel operation that is already providing biomass for power plants in the state. If shrub willow energy really does catch on, it could provide farmers in New York and elsewhere with a more sustainable source of extra income than natural gas fracking, despite mounting pressure from the drilling industry.
A Shrub Willow Biofuel Farm Grows in New York
The new shrub willow operation, called Celtic Energy Farm, is located upstate by Lake Ontario. Land preparation began in 2009 and, according to a report in auburnpub.com, the crop is already spoken for by the renewable energy company ReEnergy.
About 800 acres of shrub willow can yield about 1 megawatt, or enough to supply about 750 average homes for one year.
Even before fracking emerged as a farmland and water supply preservation issue in New York and other parts of the Marcellus shale region, researchers at Cornell University and other institutions had spent years working on pest-resistant, drought-hardy strains of willow shrub suitable as a biofuel crop.
The federal government has been heavily involved, most recently with a grant of $1.37 million for shrub willow research through Cornell University’s Northeast Sun Grant Institute.
More Improvements in Sight for Shrub Willow Biofuel
As research continues in the U.S., overseas interest in willow biofuel has also grown.
In the U.K., Rothamsted Research, Imperial College London, and the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Agronomy Institute have achieved a new breakthrough that could help speed the development of biofuel-friendly strains of willow.
The U.K. team has been analyzing varieties of willow grown in very windy areas. The conclusion is that wind can induce growth stress that creates changes in the composition of wood, making it easier to extract sugars.
Willow Biofuel vs. Fracking
Natural gas fracking refers to a drilling method that involves shooting a chemical laced fluid deep underground. Though regulatory loopholes have made it slow going, federal agencies have been doggedly pursuing the connection between fracking and water contamination, and anecdotal evidence is also mounting.
Despite the risks, many property owners find it difficult to resist the financial benefits of leasing or selling land over to fracking operations, especially in economically distressed areas (as dramatized in the forthcoming Matt Damon/Gus Van Sant movie Promised Land).
The introduction of new income sources like shrub willow could help provide land owners with a more sustainable alternative.
Aside from its use as a biofuel crop, shrub willow acreage can also serve as a wildlife habitat, and its deep roots help to prevent soil erosion.
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Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.