What Crop is Best for Manufacturing Biofuel on a Small-Scale?

We want to grow, harvest and produce our own crop to manufacture our own biofuel, for our farms. What crop do you recommend? We’ve been looking at sawgrass. –Joseph from Tempe, Arizona

Whether you want to grow a feedstock, such as sawgrass, for your own ‘on-farm’ use or for commercial facilities it is important to answer several key questions before embarking on the production of bioenergy feedstocks. Anyone interested in producing bioenergy should take these questions into consideration even if you are in a ‘biomass rich’ state. 

These questions to think about include:

1. What feedstocks do you have available or that could be available? How are these feedstocks currently being used or disposed of?

The first step to answering these questions is to determine whether your region or state has done a biomass assessment. Specific attention needs to be paid to crop residues, current and potential new energy crops (perennial and annual), and “waste” streams (woody and herbaceous). Assessments should be done to take into account the specific soil type, climate, precipitation, and necessary inputs, etc., in your area. Furthermore, you will need to determine what facilities may exist or are planned in the near future so that you can have a market. The goal of your assessment should be to determine which feedstocks are most appropriate to grow in your area and with as little inputs as possible.

2. Who is already working with this feedstock? Is there research being done in your state that can be used to identify possible feedstocks?

You could and should reach out to your state energy office as well as academic and research institutions in your state to identify what technologies and feedstocks are already being assessed for bioenergy. No sense in reinventing the wheel when the work has already been done or is in process.

Research, demonstration and deployment of bioenergy is happening all across our country at our public institutions. The institutions in your area may also be interested in working with you on the use of new feedstocks, which could mean ‘funds’ to help you get started on your project. They should also be able to help you determine how to produce your feedstock in an environmentally and economically viable way.

The practice of growing feedstocks should be focused on reducing the use of highly erodible land which, when used, can cause degradation of the soil including soil loss as well as, loss of microbial life and nutrients. If you plan to use marginal lands, then you will want to use suitable feedstocks (e.g. perennial grasses) which will prevent erosion.

3. What transportation systems exist to move the harvested feedstock to the facility or farm where the energy is to be produced? How will you store this feedstock once it arrives at the conversion facility?

The logistical capacity for transportation, harvesting and storage is one of the biggest barriers for bioenergy projects to overcome. New crops mean that current agriculture equipment may have to be adapted or invented to harvest these crops. For example, balers, combines and mowers will need to be adapted to handle different crops. Various individuals, manufacturers and some of our country’s land-grant universities have already begun this kind of research and developed equipment to handle different kinds of feedstocks.

4. Are there any specific policies in your state that could help you develop a technology or grow a feedstock?

A variety of tools will be needed to promote sustainable feedstock production. Policies must undertake and incentivize educating the public, research, rural economic development through local ownership, feedstock production, biorefinery and increased market and infrastructure development to support these changes. State and Federal policies have been developed and are being developed to support the production of feedstocks for bioenergy.

Check out the following sources for federal and state programs:

Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency

National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) – National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA): Farm Energy Search Tool

U.S. DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy: Office of Biomass