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The Future of Biofuels in North Carolina

We discuss the future of the biofuels industry in North Carolina. We talk to researchers and farmers about the potential of growing high energy grasses that can be converted into ethanol.

Earlier this month a global engineering company, based out of Wilmington, received a 99 million dollar loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of agriculture for the construction of a bio-fuels facility. If built,  it won’t be completed for another two years, but when it does; it may be the first bio-fuels facility in the country to harvest non-edible crops on a commercial scale. Stephen O’Connell has more.

The Chemtex bio-fuels plant will be built in Clinton in Sampson County. It comes with the support from the 2008 energy bill, the North Carolina Strategic Plan for bio-fuel leadership, and several state and private entities, including the The Bio-fuels Center of North Carolina, the Farm Bureau Agency, and the Department of Agriculture. Communications Director at the Bio-fuels Center of North Carolina, Wil Glenn says the Center was created in response to the bio-fuel Leadership Plan as a place for research and information for people interested in growing, manufacturing, and using bio-fuels in North Carolina.

"We have the long term task of developing a large scale bio-fuels industry, and our goal is to reduce to state’s dependence on imported petroleum, we are state supported, we’ve put together North Carolina’s strategic plan for bio-fuels leadership that sets the goal of replacing ten percent of the petroleum imported into the state with bio-fuels locally grown and produced."

Another force behind the state’s efforts in the bio-fuel industry is the Biomass crop assistance program. Biomass is material that can be found or grown to harvest biofuels, such as ethanol or biodiesel. It includes wood chips, sugar cane, corn, canola, and high energy grasses like switch grass, arundo donax, or Giant Miscanthus.  To encourage farmers, the crop assistance program helps with start up costs for growing the biomass crops. Glenn says the industry could bring a lot of revenue to the state.

"This could be a great boom, it could change the landscape of North Carolina, and North Carolina farmers, especially in Eastern North Carolina. We expect new energy crops to be grown here in the next five to ten years, and allot of jobs being created, allot of plants being here, just a lot of new opportunity for the bio-fuels industry, for NC farmers, and those like to grow plants that can be used as bio-fuels."

When the Bio-fuels Center was established it had the mandate to produce fuel with non-edible crops, such as cotton and high energy grasses. With issues of drought, and the food versus fuel debate, corn has become an increasingly unattractive crop for the production of fuels, such as ethanol.

Associate Professor in the Department of biological and agricultural engineering, Dr. Ratna Sharma- Shivappa, has been working in the field of bio-engineering for over nine years. She says researchers are able to convert crops such as high energy grasses into fuel using a three step process.

"What we have found is that they have this component called lignin which we really need to break down somehow to release the carbohydrates, which are needed to make sugars, and finally a fuel or any kind of high value product."

Dr. Sharma-Shivappa says their biggest obstacle now is to make the process of converting these crops into fuel as cost effective and efficient as possible. She says the state offers a unique advantage.

"NC has different environments, ok we have the coast, the piedmont, and the mountains, so we could essentially be growing grasses that are more adaptive to these three geographic locations and increase the biomass that we get."

Dr. Sharma says they are not quite to the point of producing these fuels on a commercial scale, but thinks the technology could be realized in the next five to ten years.

Earlier this summer, Chemtex started its search for farmers interested in growing high energy grasses like switchgrass or giant Miscanthus. Farm owner, Houston Warren has signed up to grow the Giant Miscanthus blend in Newport in Carteret County. Houston says he is working with Reprieve Renewable, the Farm Bureau Agency, and Chemtex to grow the grasses. Under the Crop Assistance Program, The Farm Bureau will provide him with establishment costs for five years. Reprieve will supply him with the seed for Giant Miscanthus for a thousand dollars an acre. The Farm Bureau will pay him seven hundred and fifty and he will pay two hundred and fifty.

"Reprieve will get the grass established, and then they turn it over to Chemtex, and Chemtex employs a agronomist, who then comes out and makes sure the grass that is grown is conformant to their standards."

Warren, who’s dedicated forty acres to the grass, will receive two hundred fifty dollars an acre. He says the grass takes the grass two to three years to fully mature, and can be productive for fifteen.

"They will come in and establish or plant the grass in March and they will harvest approx one tone of it in September and then it goes up to the possibility of up to 20 tons plus once it’s established and becomes mature."

Warren attended meetings hosted by the North Carolina Cooperative Extension. Cooperative Extension Agent for Sampson County, Sandy Stewart, has been speaking with farmers about signing up with Chemtex. He says the land in North Carolina could be a good environment for the grasses.

"I think it’s a good fit here because I think we do have quite a bit of these deep sandier soils located here in Sampson County and surrounding counties that I think would certainly have the potential to be favorable for growing these crops. "

The meetings that took place this past summer encouraged the use of marginal land for bio crops. Marginal land has low production value, and is typically non arable. Although marginal land was the focus at the Cooperative Agencies meetings, Houston Warren is growing the Miscanthus on class 1 soil, a soil predominant in Eastern North Carolina, also called Norfolk Sandy Lawn. Warren thinks many farmers are skeptical of the facility because the technology is new, and because of recent failures at corn based ethanol plants in the country. However, bio-fuels may be the future of North Carolina Agriculture.  Research is strong at schools such as N.C. state, and Central Carolina Community College. The agriculture industry is the state’s largest source of revenue. And the U.S. Navy has been using bio-fuel in recent years.  The Chemtex plant in Clinton is one step toward making North Carolina a leader in the bio-fuels industry. Stephen O’Connell, Public Radio East.

Jared Brumbaugh is the Assistant General Manager for Public Radio East. An Eastern North Carolina native, Jared began his professional public radio career at Public Radio East while he was a student at Craven Community College earning his degree in Electronics Engineering Technology. During his 15+ years at Public Radio East, he has served as an award-winning journalist, producer, and on-air host. When not at the station, Jared enjoys hiking, traveling, and honing his culinary skills.