Some people look at the scraggly kind of trees that grow on the side of road and think of them as woody weeds.
At Penn State, there are other people who look at them and see a source of power.
It’s called biomass, a way to use organic material to provide energy without waiting millions of years for today’s plants to become fuel. The idea is sustainability, utilizing resources that will grow again instead of something that gets used up. And the concept itself is recycled since using trees for heat is as old as fire.
But what the NewBio Northeast Woody/Warm-season Biomass Consortium is looking to prove is not just that it will work, but how it will work and to see if it is economically viable in central Pennsylvania. The $10 million, five-year project is funded through a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant.
On the the edge of a cornfield just off Interstate 99 between State College and Bellefonte, researchers planted 34 acres of shrub willow in 2012 and sat back to wait. After one early harvest, Armen Kemanian, assistant professor of production systems and modeling, said he and his team waited three years for the plants to grow enough to mow them down.
That time came this month as equipment was brought in from New York, giant harvesters that drove over the 20-foot-tall crop, not only chopping them down but grinding them into chips. Each pass of harvester turned a long row of the skinny trees into a truckload of mulchy mass.
Three years of growth are expected to produce about 800 tons, but that’s one of the things Kemanian says they are measuring. There are other places that grow shrub willow for its biomass potential, like in New York and Canada. The Penn State study is exploring how the native Eurasian crop fares a little more to the south.
“We are working out some of the kinks,” said Michael Jacobson, professor of forest resources and Penn State and Kemanian’s NewBio co-chairman. “The point is, it’s very important to understand the economics. You can’t look at just one harvest and decide if it breaks even or not. There are 15 to 20 years of multiple cycles.”
That is because of how the plant regenerates. The willows planted in 2012 can be regenerated about seven times, giving that one planting a lifespan of decades that it can be harvested. If a farmer or an energy company planted it one time, it could be years before the economic reality of the investment was known.
One saving comes from the hardy nature of the plants. Kemanian says it requires much less maintenance than an agricultural crop like corn or soybeans. That means none of the cost of labor to baby fragile plants.
“Once it’s up, you just harvest it,” said Jacobson. “Now we’ll do nothing. It will just sprout. By August, you’ll probably see it up five feet.”
It will be ready to harvest again in 2019.
$10 million Amount of grant money provided by USDA
5 years Length of project
34 acres Amount of ground dedicated to the willow crop
800 tons Estimated yield per year
There’s also another saving: location. The willow doesn’t need to occupy the valuable real estate that could go to an annual cash crop. Instead, farmers, or other landowners, can use in areas that might be undesirable for other plants because of the terrain or soil itself.
In fact, Kemanian said the trees might provide clean energy in more than one way. It might be energy that actually cleans its environment. The willow might be able to improve the ground where it’s planted, as well as the air around it. Towers with sensors were used to measure the carbon dioxide in the air around the crop as it grew.
Kemanian said that another area is being tested to see how it fares in reclaimed strip mining land, but that is one place that might not be ideal because the ground is too densely packed for the willow.
“It’s more than field management. It’s management of the landscape,” Kemanian said.
Shrub willow is not just a potential clean energy source. Penn State researchers say that it can use ground that would otherwise stay idle and provide new, healthy ways to use the land.
The project shows an intersection of some of Penn State’s key areas in recent years. Invent Penn State is President Eric Barron’s initiative to develop new businesses and technologies. Then, in November, Barron announced a new goal, to make the university the foremost energy school in the country, capitalizing on the fact that Penn State is already a top five college in five different areas of energy study. That includes third in energy and the environment and fifth in renewable energy.
Jacobson says the project is definitely in keeping with those objectives, as well as helping both the producers and the consumers of the product have more insight into how the crop can be managed.
“We definitely think there needs to be a partnership between agriculture and energy,” he said. “It’s good for the energy companies, having these dedicated plantations where you know the yield. It’s good for the farmer, better than leaving the land idle, but they want to be assured there’s a market.”
We definitely think there needs to be a partnership between agriculture and energy.
Michael Jacobson, professor of forest resources at Penn State
The market was the one area where the Penn State project did not exactly hit the target. The energy crop? Well, it won’t exactly be creating any energy with this first mature harvest.
As a newer kind of fuel, the willow chips could not find a home with an energy buyer. Jacobson said they even tried to peddle the crop to Penns Valley Area School District, which does use biomass fuel, but without success. But that doesn’t mean that it will go to waste. In fact, it still has a clean purpose.
The chips went to local manufacturer MKB Company to become the absorbent filler material in its Diamond Socks, a compost-filter barrier that the USDA says can be used to treat pollution and mitigate soil erosion.
The initial grant runs through 2017, but the willows will keep coming back until after 2030.
“We’re really pleased with how well it has all gone,” said Jacobson. “The beauty of it was the efficiency.”