Where will all that fuel come from? That’s the question farmers and landowners will be asked in coming years as the U.S. tries to figure out how to replace 36 billion gallons of oil-based fuel by 2025.

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA07) set into motion the federally mandated goal of reducing dependence on foreign oil. Provisions in the EISA07 will reduce crude oil categorically, imported crude oil specifically, and gasoline use emphatically. 

Gasoline use is a primary target and reducing fossil fuel use by 36 billion gallons over the next two decades is projected to play a key role in overall gasoline use.

Gasoline will be reduced in two ways. The increase in corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards will eventually reduce gasoline by about 1.1 million barrels per day in new cars and inserting 36 billion gallons per year of renewable fuels like ethanol will reduce gasoline use in all cars.

Farmers are already off-setting more than a third of the 36 billion gallons with more than 13 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol and over a half billion gallons of biodiesel, primarily from soybeans. By 2022 corn-based ethanol is expected to provide 15 billion gallons of fuel annually and biodiesel is expected to produce 1 billion.

The renewable fuels standard became effective July 1, 2010. It will provide tremendous opportunities for rural communities in the Southeast.

Some contend the Midwest is about maxed out in fuel production, without severely impacting grain crops grown for food and livestock feed. The next logical place to look is the Southeast.

Jim Frederick, Clemson University agronomist and driving force behind the annual South Carolina Biofuels Summit, says the USDA’s projection of 36 billion gallons of fuel needed to reduce greenhouse emissions and comply with federal legislation and be economically feasible to do, came from extensive surveying of experts from around the country.

These experts looked at the Southeast as having lots of forest residue on the ground, a favorable climate and land-base to grow biomass crops and a need to develop rural industries. Based on these observations they project that about half of the cellulosic biofuel production will come from the Southeast.

An important consideration is that future bioenergy not displace crops grown for food. In the Southeast, there is a favorable growing climate, plus a need to replace at least some of the traditional acreage, such as tobacco.

Must be home-grown

It’s not feasible to ship biomass or forest residue long distances, turn it into fuel, and ship it back to the East Coast for use. So, whatever the source of bioenergy is, it must be home-grown and processed near the area in which it will be used, the Clemson researcher says.

For farmers, there will be some opportunities to grow biomass crops. Which crop will be the primary one used for fuel isn’t certain. Switchgrass has gotten a lot of attention in the Southeast. It is a fast growing crop and great strides have been made in recent years in understanding the physiology of the crop and subsequently in producing high yields using minimal input costs, Frederick says.

USDA estimates the following make-up of the 36 billion gallons of biofuels to offset the amount currently used for vehicles:

• From dedicated energy crops, including perennial grasses, energy cane and biomass sorghum, 13.4 billion gallons.

• From oilseeds, such as soy and canola, .5 billion gallons.

• From woody biomass, such as logging residues, 2.8 billion gallons.

• From corn starch, primarily ethanol from corn, 15 billion gallons.

Speaking at the recent South Carolina Biofuels Summit, South Carolina Farm Service Agency Deputy Director Kenneth McCaskill says these figures offer the opportunity for life-changing development projects in rural areas of the Southeast.

The USDA has estimated the cost of building cellulosic plants capable of producing 49.8 percent, or about 10 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022, at $8 per gallon. If accurate, that would mean the Southeast will be expected to build and have in operation by 2022, an $80 billion industry. Currently, there is one plant in Louisiana, which is expected to come online next year.

“These figures are staggering for an industry that doesn’t exist in a region of the country that is in desperate need of urban revitalization. How to best take advantage of this opportunity is a big question for farmers and landowners in the Southeast,” says McCaskill.

Large acreage base in Southeast

In the Southeast there is an acreage base of 83.4 million acres of cropland and cropland pasture and 182.8 million acres of forest land. To produce the biofuels necessary from this region, an advanced biofuel production of 10.5 billion gallons from 9.5 million acres, 11.4 percent of the available cropland and cropland pasture acreage base, would be required for fuel use.

Worldwide, it is estimated that biomass provides the stock for about 14 percent of the primary energy. In the U.S. some estimates go as high as 4 percent and others less than one percent. Worldwide, biomass is the fourth largest energy resource behind coal, oil and natural gas.

There is little doubt the Southeast has the land base to grow large acreages of biomass crops without substantially reducing the current acreage used to produce food and fiber. The question is how to put a federally mandated demand and farmer interest together.

“Which crop is going to be ‘the’ crop, how best to grow and most importantly how to market it and at what cost, are huge questions that must be answered before farmers buy into biomass production on a large scale,” says Frederick.

Clearly there is interest among farmers and landowners, Frederick says, noting that over 300 people attended the latest South Carolina Biofuels Summit. “That’s pretty good interest for an industry that doesn’t yet exist,” he quips.

We know we have to find another 20 billion gallons of fuel from somewhere other than corn-based ethanol and biodiesel. We suspect about 10 billion gallons of this extra fuel will have to come from the Southeast, but so far we don’t know how that’s going to happen.

“If it happens, we know it’s going to have to happen in rural areas and landowners and farmers will be needed to supply the huge amount of stock material to produce 10 billion gallons of cellulosic fuel.

“We are starting a huge rural industry basically from nothing and it needs to be in operation in 12 years. That level of financial input from the federal government and private enterprise could revitalize rural industries across the Southeast,” McCaskill says.