Net energy of cellulosic ethanol from switchgrass

Jan 2008

Perennial herbaceous plants such as switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.) are being evaluated as cellulosic bioenergy crops. Two major concerns have been the net energy efficiency and economic feasibility of switchgrass and similar crops. All previous energy analyses have been based on data from research plots (<5 m2) and estimated inputs. Here switchgrass is managed as a biomass energy crop in field trials of 3–9 ha (1 ha=10,000m2) on marginal cropland on 10 farms across a wide precipitation and temperature gradient in the midcontinental U.S. to determine net energy and economic costs based on known farm inputs and harvested yields. In this report, the agricultural energy input costs, biomass yield, estimated ethanol output, greenhouse gas emissions, and net energy results are summarized. Annual biomass yields of established fields averaged 5.2 -11.1 Mg∙ha-1 with a resulting average estimated net energy yield (NEY) of 60 GJ∙ha-1∙y-1. Switchgrass produced 540% more renewable than non-renewable energy consumed. Switchgrass monocultures managed for high yield produced 93% more biomass yield and an equivalent estimated NEY than previous estimates from human-made prairies that received low agricultural inputs. Estimated average greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from cellulosic ethanol derived from switchgrass were 94% lower than estimated GHG from gasoline. This is a baseline study that represents the genetic material and agronomic technology available for switchgrass production in 2000 and 2001, when the fields were planted. Improved genetics and agronomics may further enhance energy sustainability and biofuel yield of switchgrass.

By: M. R. Schmer, K. P. Vogel, R. B. Mitchell, R. K. Perrin

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