Evaluation of perennial grasses for bioenergy feedstock

Date: 

2007 to 2015

Summary: 

Displacement of fossil fuels with bioenergy crops is an economically viable option for the Northeast and is in fact beginning to occur commercially in the region. Perennial grasses and other crops can reduce our dependence on non-renewable energy and lower greenhouse gas emissions; however, agronomic commercial-scale research on dedicated bioenergy crop production in the Northeast is needed for the development of this industry. This project is part of a multi-disciplinary (plant breeding, plant pathology, seed science, crop and soil science, agricultural economics, agricultural education, weed science, plant biology, and biological and environmental engineering) renewable energy research effort focused on the production of perennial grasses for use as bioenergy feedstock for conversion to liquid fuels, gases and combustible products.

Issue: 

Biomass is an alternative energy resource that can reduce the consumption of fossil fuels and ease the burden of high energy costs for residents and industry living and operating in the Northeast. This project was initiated to identify specific perennial grass species and varieties that have the greatest potential for use as dedicated bioenergy feedstocks in New York. The majority of research conducted on perennial grass bioenergy crops has been done in the Midwest, South Central and Southeast regions of the country where management practices and environmental conditions differ from those in the Northeast. Data obtained from those regional trials may not reflect how perennial grass species, and varieties within species, identified as the best candidates for bioenergy feedstock will perform in the Northeast. Additionally, plant breeding efforts have been focused on variety development for those regions, and no variety selection or plant breeding research has been conducted in the Northeast. This project has the potential to increase revenue for the agricultural sector through production of perennial grasses in New York and will also impact investors in conversion technologies, pelletizing companies, transportation and agricultural engineering businesses. Coal-fired electricity producers will also benefit from this research if carbon reduction incentives for co-firing with agriculturally produced renewable fuel sources are implemented.

Response: 

Starting in 2007, the program began establishing warm and cool season perennial grass trials (~95 acres) in small and large plot experiments in diverse regions of New York. Through these ongoing trials the project has been able to collect data on grass yield in monoculture and polyculture systems, nutrient use efficiency, occurrence and severity of pests and pathogens, and chemical compositional characteristics related to downstream energy conversion. The Cornell project is also a participant in a Regional Herbaceous Feedstock Production Trial sponsored by the SunGrant Initiative and the U.S. Department of Energy. Working in collaboration with researchers in the Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering, we are assessing carbon and greenhouse gas flux in perennial grass systems through an award funded by the USDA. In addition, we have initiated a warm season grass breeding program (approximately 16,000 individual plants transplanted from germinated seed collected from the Northeast) to develop switchgrass and big bluestem varieties for use as bioenergy feedstocks in the region.
The goals of the warm season perennial grass breeding initiative are to identify germplasm with high biomass yield potential that can be harvested in an efficient and timely manner and possess compositional quality characteristics that are most conducive for conversion to energy. Germplasm collected from the Northeast will be used to develop new and improved cultivars with these desirable agronomic and bioenergy related traits adapted to this region. Information developed from the field trials will be used to make recommendations through the Cornell Cooperative Extension outreach program and field days at Cornell and other trial locations to current and potential producers of these grasses for use as dedicated bioenergy crops.

Impact: 

The project has identified plant species and varieties with the highest yield potential for New York state and most likely for the Northeast region. Information obtained from established field trials on best management practices for perennial grasses is being used to make recommendations to producers and interested stakeholders in New York state. Data from perennial grass monoculture and mixed species field trials have provided current and potential producers with information necessary for cost effective establishment of these crops for conversion to energy. Commercial-scale field trials planned for 2011 will allow for the development of economic and environmental impact models that will facilitate the expansion of the bioenergy industry in New York. This project has drawn an enormous amount of attention due to the need for affordable non-fossil fuel energy alternatives in this region. Our outreach and extension activities are well attended, and the project has received funding from multiple agencies to continue and expand the focus of the research.

Submitted by: 

International focus: 

  • United States of America

United States focus: 

  • South Dakota
  • New Jersey
  • Oklahoma
  • Ohio
  • New York
  • Pennsylvania
  • Washington
  • Virginia

New York State focus: 

  • St. Lawrence
  • Jefferson
  • Clinton
  • Madison
  • Chemung
  • Steuben
  • Oneida
  • Tompkins
  • Genesee
  • Schoharie