Miscanthus: Putting the ‘Green’ in Green Energy

Who holds the key to Northeast Ohio’s clean energy future? Scientists? Energy experts? How about… farmers? Jon Griswold is placing all his chips on the men and women who rise at the crack of dawn and work the land all day, and their ability to plant and harvest a crop that will someday help wean America off its dependence on fossil fuels.

Griswold is CEO of Aloterra Energy, a Houston-based energy company. Aloterra develops biomass conversion facilities through cultivating sources of biomass crops to expand fuel marketing, distribution and logistics operations into the biomass renewable energy market. Griswold’s company sees Northeast Ohio as a good bet for developing a new clean energy industry.

The 2008 Federal Farm Bill created BCAP, a federally funded initiative that encourages the development of renewable energy sources. In June, Aloterra Energy received USDA approval for funding to grow giant miscanthus through the establishment of acreage in northeast Ohio and northwest Pennsylvania as one of four Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) project areas in the nation. Aloterra Energy operates three of the four projects: the other two projects are located in Missouri and Arkansas.

Aloterra Energy’s BCAP operations are based out of its picturesque miscanthus demonstration farm in Ashtabula County, just south of Conneaut, Ohio. The farm, planted with acres and acres of 6 foot tall giant miscanthus plants, is nestled in the heart of Project Area 5, comprised of seven counties along the Ohio-Pennsylvania border: Ashtabula, Geauga, Lake and Trumbull counties in Ohio and Crawford, Erie and Mercer counties in Pennsylvania. This region has $5.7 million guaranteed BCAP funding for 5,344 acres in 2011, which will go to the first farmers and landowners to sign up for the program. The goal is to establish 50,000 acres of miscanthus by 2014.

Miscanthus giganteus is a sterile, warm-weather hybrid perennial grass crop that can be converted into energy to be pelletized and used for heat, power, liquid biofuels, and bio-based products. Aloterra Energy looks to combine the benefits of growing miscanthus grass with the BCAP incentives that encourage local farmers and landowners to grow a biomass crop. Farmers and landowners who enroll their acreage will get a lot of financial support from the USDA, with a minimum of risk and initial outlay. Under current guidelines, BCAP will reimburse farmers up to 75 percent of planting costs and pay an annual rent payment while farmers wait for their crops to mature. Once the crops mature, farmers will be eligible to receive two years of matching payments for their tonnage, up to $45 per ton beyond the selling price.

The potential regional economic impact of this energy crop project is considerable. The seven-county Northeast Ohio/Northwest Pennsylvania BCAP project area is projected to produce an estimated $50 million in annual economic impact from growing and producing this new energy crop, while creating an estimated 1,200 new jobs, according to a third-party study conducted by Environ International Corporation. State renewable energy portfolio standards and the Environmental Protection Agency transport rule are critical drivers in establishing a biomass crop for power generation in Ohio. Aloterra Energy also expects to ship miscanthus pellets and other products to waiting markets in the Netherlands and other European countries.

Aloterra Energy is also working closely with the Ohio State University Extension in Ashtabula County on research into best practices on farming giant miscanthus. Ashtabula County’s Extension has a test plot of the grass growing at a farm in Kingsville, Ohio. Ohio State University President Dr. E. Gordon Gee visited Aloterra Energy’s demonstration farm, in August, as part of his annual summer tour of innovative businesses in Northeast Ohio.

The USDA Farm Service Agency has announced a September 16, 2011 deadline for enrollment in the BCAP program. In August, more than a dozen federal, state and local government, academic and agriculture leaders gathered together at Aloterra Energy’s miscanthus farm to show their support for the project. They also urged interested landowners and farmers, living within the project, to contact their local Farm Service Agency office for assistance.

Aloterra Energy’s Miscanthus Grass Demonstration Farm and Biomass Conversion Facility is located at 3635 Middle Road, Conneaut, Ohio if you would like to find out more about the Northeast Ohio Biomass Crop Assistance Program, visit their website: http://www.aloterraenergy.com