Energy solution or noxious weed?

Janet Babin Dec 6, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Oil’s at $60 a barrel. The planet’s not getting any cooler. So you’d think just about everybody would be in favor of renewable energy. Not just renewable but renewable in a way that doesn’t contribute to global warming. Bio-fuel’s a popular option. Energy from plants. Lots of companies are trying to make it work. There’s a start-up in Florida that’s won a biofuel contract with a major energy company. But the choice of plant isn’t so popular. Janet Babin reports from the Marketplace Innovations Desk at North Carolina Public Radio:

JANET BABIN: The start up is BioMass Investment Group, or BIG. The power giant is Progress Energy Florida. And a plant trademarked “E-Grass” will make the energy. It’s a giant reed. Here’s how Shirley Denton with the Florida Native Plant Society describes it . . . She says picture your next-door neighbor’s house or any one-story structure:

SHIRLEY DENTON: And envision a grass around it that is so thick that you can’t walk through it, that’s taller than the home and occupying the entire lot. It’s a weed on steroids.

Its Latin name is Arundo Donax. It’s native to the Mediterranean. It arrived in the U.S. more than a century ago, with good intentions: It was meant to control erosion in California stream beds.

But decades later, the plant has gained quite a bit of notoriety. Even though it doesn’t produce seed, pieces of it can break off in wind or water. Texas lists it as a noxious weed, and California has spent millions of dollars to eradicate it.

But the same qualities that make it notorious to those who want to get rid of it could also make it famous, as a highly productive biomass — a fuel made from plants.

Jerry Whitfield with BIG says the company chose to convert Arundo to fuel for good reasons, like its high yield:

JERRY WHITFIELD: As well as its heartiness, and its relative lack of need for fertilizer, or any other means of protecting the crop with herbicides during its growth.

BIG will grow about 20,000 acres of Arundo on a Florida farm. It will then convert the biomass into a liquid fuel, and burn it in a gas turbine. The waste heat from the turbine exhaust then produces steam that churns out additional electricity in a steam turbine.

The resulting energy will be enough to power 80,000 homes on a continuous basis. Whitfield says the production process increases the facility’s efficiency two-fold above current biomass methods. That will make it on target to produce energy at prices below what a conventional plant might produce.

And Bob Niekum with Progress Energy Florida says the reed-driven energy facility will be carbon neutral — that is, it will have no net output of carbon dioxide, known to contribute to greenhouse gases:

BOB NIEKUM: It does produce CO2 at the time it’s burned, but then the photosynthesis of the plants as it regrows absorbs that CO2. So the same carbon is cycled over and over again within the plant.

Niekum says most environmental groups favor the project. But the Florida Native Plant Society and a few other groups oppose it. He says their fears are unfounded:

NIEKUM: There are always going to be people that are against things. I call them COVE, which is Citizens Opposed to Virtually Everything.

Niekum and BIG say the reed’s growth is easy to control, with a simple ditch around the farm. But Roger Anderson at Illinois State University isn’t so sure. He says the giant reed can spread easily, clog waterways and even be a fire hazard. Anderson says many species proposed as biomass crops, including Arundo, are potentially invasive plants:

ROGER ANDERSON: You have a yellow flag. You know, you have to be very careful, because the potential for serious environmental damage and eventually high economic cost is very great.

BIG says it’s done its research and is in the final stages of getting government approval. But if BIG fails to secure its biomass permits, musician Rodney Marsh hopes the company will grow the Arundo for another reason:

To bring down the price of reeds used in saxophones and oboes. They’re made from Arundo Donax grown mostly in France and South America.

In Durham, North Carolina, I’m Janet Babin for Marketplace.

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