Biofuels could eventually be a boon for the Chesapeake, with farmers growing hundreds of thousands of acres of nutrient-absorbing switchgrass and wastewater treatment plants using excess nutrients to raise crops of algae.

But those sources of biofuels-and the accompanying benefits-are still a long way from making it into the nation's gas tanks, according to a new report.

In the near future, most biofuel activity will focus on ethanol from corn, and will add to the Bay's nutrient pollution problems unless "extraordinary" efforts are made to control runoff, warned the report from the Chesapeake Bay Commission, an advisory group to state legislatures.

The report, "Biofuels And the Bay: Getting it Right to Benefit Farms, Forests and the Chesapeake," calls for dramatically ramping up spending on farm conservation programs to offset the increased pollution that will otherwise result as additional land is converted to corn production in the Bay watershed.

Looking ahead, it also says the Bay region should, "lead the way" in a transition to less- harmful, and potentially more sustainable, sources of ethanol, such as switchgrass or wood chips.

"The Governors and the state legislatures need to get out in front of this movement to biofuels and assure that there are adequate programs and funds to assist farmers and foresters to handle the added impacts," said Commission Chairman James Hubbard, a delegate in the Maryland General Assembly.

"If we provide the leadership and the program support, we can help farmers, foresters and the Bay; if we fail, the Bay will suffer the consequences," he said.

The report, which was sent to lawmakers in each of the Bay states as well as members of Congress, called on elected officials to push for greater conservation funding in the Farm Bill, now before Congress, to help offset impacts and to support alternative biofuel crops.

The report also called on states to take action to keep forests, buffers and idled land from being converted to corn production, as well as to create a regional strategy to promote and fund farm conservation practices and technical assistance to farmers.

Interest in ethanol, both within the Bay watershed and across the nation, has surged as political leaders push to reduce dependence on foreign oil. Congress in 2005 set a goal of producing 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol by 2012, a goal likely to be met this year.

President Bush has called for 35 billion gallons of biofuel-20 percent of the nation's transportation fuel needs-by 2017. Those goals are backed by a 51 cent per gallon tax credit given to ethanol blenders and a steep tariff to halt importation of ethanol from other countries.

That has led to a surge in ethanol plant construction. About 121 grain ethanol plants are operating in the United States today, and an estimated 72 are under construction. Multiple plants are in various stages of planning or construction in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia.

In response to demand, corn prices have surged and farmers nationwide planted nearly 93 million acres this year, the most since 1944. In the Bay watershed, corn planting increased by roughly 180,000 acres this year, according to a Bay Journal analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture figures (See "Increase in watershed's corn acres could offset Bay cleanup efforts," September 2007).

That would produce about 3 million additional pounds of nitrogen runoff, as well as more phosphorus and sediment. Controlling nutrients, which spur algae blooms, and sediment, which clouds the water, are the main focus of the Bay cleanup effort.

The commission's report predicts a conversion to other sources of ethanol such as switchgrass, which has the potential to help clean up the Bay, but says the needed technologies are at least five to eight years away.

During that time, the report predicts that 300,000 acres of land would be converted to corn production. That's less than other estimates, which have placed the potential conversion at 500,000 to 1 million acres.

The commission's report, relying on the conclusions of a panel of technical advisors, said conversion would be limited by a number of factors, including the need to grow a mix of crops to feed livestock farms in the region. Nonetheless, the conversion of 300,000 acres would have a substantial impact on the Bay.

Without the aggressive use of nutrient-absorbing cover crops and other conservation practices on farms, nitrogen reaching the Bay could increase by 5 million pounds a year, the report said. That would offset half of all agricultural nutrient reductions in the Bay watershed from 2000 through 2005, it added.

Corn requires more fertilizer than any other crop, but is poor at absorbing it unless growing conditions are ideal. Of a typical 150-pound-per-acre nitrogen application, anywhere from 20-40 pounds leaves the field and reaches ground or surface waters, the report said.

"It is safe to say that farmland that is converted to corn production from virtually any other agricultural use will have a greater nutrient loading potential to the Bay's waters unless mitigated by added conservation practices," the report said.

Right now, the Bay region has to reduce nitrogen by an additional 90 million pounds a year to meet the 175 million pound goal needed to restore Bay water quality, according to computer model estimates. In recent years, reductions have averaged about 3.5 million pounds a year.

At that rate, it would take 26 years to reach cleanup goals, noted Bill Matuszeski, a consultant who was the principal author of the commission's report, and the former director of the EPA's Bay Program Office.

If 300,000 acres of corn are planted, it would take roughly two additional years to clean up the Bay. But if cover crops were aggressively planted, it could reduce nitrogen by 17 million pounds, shaving five years off the cleanup time frame.

"It's a seven-year difference in cleaning up the Bay just in what we decide to do with corn," Matuszeski, told the commission at its September meeting.

While it's possible the impact could be offset, it's also unlikely. Meeting that cover crop objective would cost the region about $62 million a year, according to commission estimates.

The figures also show that in Maryland-which has by far the most aggressive cover crop program-only 34 percent of the needed funding is in place. Current programs achieve just 19 percent of the cover crop needs in Virginia and only 2 percent in Pennsylvania.

Those figures may undercount actual plantings-they include only those subsidized with public funds-but officials acknowledged that there was a huge funding gap that is unlikely to be filled.

"We don't have enough money, in any of these states, for [that level of] cover crops," said John Griffin, secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and a commission member.

Nonetheless, the corn production issue is driven by national policies and largely outside the region's hands, the report said. "There is nothing we can do to stop the move to corn," Matuszeski said.

Looking to the future, he said a successful transition to "cellulosic" ethanol, such as switchgrass, could be a boon for the Bay. Switchgrass is a perennial plant with an extensive root system that is effective at holding soil and absorbing nutrients.

If 1 million acres of switchgrass were planted, it would shave 12 years off the cleanup time frame, reaching water quality goals in about 14 years, or roughly 2021, according to Matuszeski.

Because of such factors, the report said the region should act now to prepare for an eventual transition to cellulosic ethanol.

Such a transition is inevitable, the report suggested, as maximum ethanol production from corn is estimated to be 12-15 billion gallons a year because of lack of land and the need to use corn for other purposes. Also, the energy gain from corn ethanol production, compared to the energy needed to grow corn, refine ethanol and transport it to the market, is minimal.

Cellulosic ethanol, in contrast, can come from more sources, and be grown on more land, and often with more ethanol production per acre. "That's the move that is coming our way. The question is whether we can get out and lead it," Matuszeski said.

Leading a transition to cellulosic ethanol will require "strategic thinking" in the region, the report said. It suggested that ethanol plants built in the region to use corn should take into account the potential change to cellulosic production in the future.

The region needs to prepare for the transition by supporting research into various materials that could be used, including corn residue left after harvest, forest products and switchgrass.

It said the Chesapeake Executive Council-which includes the governors of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia; the EPA administrator; the District of Columbia mayor; and the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission-should create a funding source to encourage the private sector to advance the move to cellulosic ethanol.

A proposed Chesapeake Incentive Awards program would pay cash prizes for such things as the first group of farmers to plant 50,000 acres of switchgrass-roughly the amount needed to fuel an ethanol plant-and commit to harvest it for 20 years. Other awards could go to groups that build the first cellulosic ethanol plant in the region, or a wastewater treatment plant that produces biodiesel from algae-an emerging technology-on a broad scale.

Making biofuels work in the long term, Matuszeski said, is not only critical to the Bay, but also for rural economies that depend on a strong agricultural sector. "Biofuels could be the biggest thing to stabilize incomes in the rural economy in this region in the past 100 years," Matuszeski said. "It's that huge."

Ethanol & The Bay By Numbers

  • 265 MILLION POUNDS: estimated nitrogen load to the Bay, 2005
  • 175 MILLION POUNDS: Bay nitrogen goal
  • 10.4 MILLION POUNDS: amount of nitrogen reductions from agriculture 2000-2005
  • 5 MILLION POUNDS: amount of nitrogen increase from 300,000 additional corn acres
  • 2.6 MILLION POUNDS: nitrogen increase from 300,000 additional soybeans acres
  • 8.3 MILLION POUNDS: amount of nitrogen reduction from 300,000 acres of switchgrass
  • 17.1 MILLION POUNDS: amount of nitrogen reduction if cover crops were planted on all new and existing corn crops, and one-quarter of all other row crops watershedwide
  • 25.4 MILLION POUNDS: nitrogen reduction from 1 million acres of switchgrass

Beyond Corn: Other Biofuel Alternatives

While raising corn for ethanol is likely to be the dominant biofuel activity for the next several years, other alternatives loom on the horizon that may offer economic opportunities for farmers and a substantially more positive impact on the Bay.

Cellulosic Ethanol

Corn has a high sugar content that is readily available for fermentation-a technology that has been available since colonists made their first corn whiskey. Cellulosic ethanol comes from "biomass"-everything from forestry byproducts to cornstalks to fast-growing plants such as switchgrass. Most of the cellulosic material in those products are complex carbohydrates that can be broken down into fermentable sugars and then made into ethanol. The impediment is separating cellulosic material from the lignin which provides much of the plant structure. Research is under way to find a combination of enzymes that can cost-effectively break down the lignin and free the carbohydrates.

Some sources of cellulosic ethanol include:

  • Perennial Grasses: These have received the most attention, especially switchgrass, a native species that has deep roots that holds soil in place and absorb fertilizer efficiently. It can grow on marginal lands, and even serve as a stream buffer. In fact, it could be woven into the farm landscape in ways that help filter pollution from other crops while producing biomass. It also might be able to soak up excess manure produced by livestock operations. Switchgrass also produces significantly more energy per acre than corn. Nonetheless, it may not be as profitable for farmers as traditional row crops. Also, although it is a perennial, it takes two years to produce the first crop of switchgrass, and does not reach full potential until its third year. That means farmers need a way to bridge the loss of income if switchgrass replaces other productive land.
  • Corn Stover: This is the stalks and leaves left after harvest. Some of that material must remain on the field to protect soil against erosion, but some could be available for cellulosic production; more research is needed to determine the optimal split.
  • Forest Slash and Forest Products: Slash is the branches and other material left after a harvest. Some need to remain to return nutrients to the soil, but some could be used for ethanol; research is needed to determine the optimal split. Chips from forest byproducts and fast-growing trees such as poplars and willow could also be used for ethanol.

Other crops may become available in the future, such as miscanthus, a family of fast-growing tropical grasses. One species grows in temperate zones of Asia, but none are native to North America. It grows up to 11 feet in one season and produces heavy yields. Phragmites, a highly invasive wetland plant in this region, might also be used.

Biodiesel

Biodiesel was the dominant form of diesel fuel until the 1920s, when petroleum-based diesel became dominant. In 2006, just 260 million gallons were produced. It can be made from vegetable oils and animal fats, such as wastes from the poultry industry, which could become a greater source in the future.

  • Soybeans: Although they are the cheapest vegetable oil source, soybeans also tend to be a high nitrogen runoff crop, although not as high as corn. If 300,000 additional acres were planted, it would increase nitrogen runoff by about 2.6 million pounds. Right now, production is limited by the cost of soybeans and limited equipment in the region to crush soybeans into oil.
  • Algae: An especially promising source of biodiesel, by one estimate, algae could produce 5,000 gallons of biodiesel per acre, compared with 48 from soybeans, although studies of the potential for algae are still in their early stages. Algae-based systems can be grown with effluent from sewage treatment plants, removing additional nutrients after treatment.

Other material might be used in the future, such as rapeseed (canola oil) which can also be grown as a cover crop. Another concern for the Bay is that nitrogen oxide emissions, a form of nitrogen pollution, can increase with biodiesel.

Combustion and Gasification

Several technologies may have the potential to produce energy, mostly at the small scale, using farm products or wastes. Most are in developmental stages, or face economical hurdles for small-scale implementation, but may offer potential in the future to reduce manure wastes while also reducing costs or generating money for farmers. Among the possibilities:

  • Combustion: The simplest biofuel is simply taking organic material such as manure and burning it to generate heat for poultry houses or other uses. This can require investments beyond the reach of individual farmers, and small on-site facilities may also create air pollution issues. As an alternative to chicken litter, bales of switchgrass are being burned experimentally to generate heat. It's also possible that manure or switchgrass could be mixed with coal at power plants that generate electricity. Using switchgrass as a fuel has an advantage as it reduces air pollution.
  • Anaerobic Digestion: This is a process that speeds natural decomposition and produces biogas, typically methane, as a byproduct. The gas can be captured and used in boilers for heat or small-scale electric production. Various systems have been developed to use animal wastes on farms over the years with limited economic success. About two dozen anaerobic digesters have been placed on farms in Pennsylvania in the last three years, with excess energy sold back to electric companies. Some believe that anaerobic digestion could offset the substantial amount of fossil fuel energy needed to create grain ethanol by using ethanol byproducts to feed nearby dairy animals, then capturing the animal waste and returning it to the ethanol plant to fuel anaerobic digesters.
  • Gasification: A variety of emerging technologies use high temperature pyrolysis to break down manures and other organic materials, producing a biodiesel-type fuel that can be used on site for heat or power generation or sent to a refinery for blending into other fuels. Other materials such as switchgrass or wood chips may be used. Few of these processes are near the level of development as ethanol or biodiesel. But the process may help deal with excess manure in the region.

Source: "Biofuels and the Bay: Getting It Right to Benefit Farms, Forests and the Chesapeake." The report is available on the Chesapeake Bay Commission's website, www.chesbay.state.va.us.