In recent months there has been substantial discussion about the potential role of ethanol in lessening our nation's dependence on foreign oil and reducing both carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon emissions.
By 2008-09, the United States will have the capacity to produce seven billion gallons of ethanol annually, primarily from corn. However, the current federal goal is to replace 30 percent of the country's petroleum consumption or sixty billion gallons with ethanol by 2030. This production target cannot be satisfied by corn alone and will require a contribution from a larger portion of the agricultural sector.
For regions outside the Midwest to contribute to the nation's ethanol production capacity, production of cellulosic energy crops is a necessity. Cellulosic crops include a wide range of plants, including switchgrass, sorghum, sugarcane, and poplar trees.
The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Ardmore, Oklahoma, is focused on improving switchgrass for use in ethanol production in Oklahoma and throughout the United States. Switchgrass has many important qualities: it does not compete with human food and animal feed markets; it grows on marginal croplands requiring less fertilizer and water than traditional food crops; it is a perennial; and it can serve a dual purpose as both livestock forage and an ethanol feedstock.
Most importantly, cellulosic crops such as switchgrass are estimated to provide a significantly higher net energy balance than corn. That is, corn-based ethanol yields 34 percent more energy than is used to grow the corn and convert it into ethanol. Cellulosic crops, on the other hand, net more than five times that amount.
Cellulosic ethanol is an exciting prospect, especially when one considers that American taxpayers will spend $320 billion on oil imports in 2006 alone. If only a small portion of that amount were redirected into ethanol production, this country would revolutionize its agricultural production while breathing economic life into its rural communities. More than just bolstering one of the country's core industries, energy independence would enhance our national security.
More than at any time in history, the development of a renewable, economical, and environmentally conscious energy source is a national priority. Switchgrass holds great promise, yet it is just one of many biofuels with potential. To meet the goal of 60 billion gallons of ethanol by 2030, we will need to bring into play all forms of biofuels, from every region of the country. The biofuel movement is an all-encompassing table with seats for many agricultural producers and feedstock providers willing to contribute to this lofty endeavor.
The United States with its distinguished heritage as an agriculture producer and its existing natural resources has the opportunity to lead the world's biofuel revolution. We must seize the moment and forge a new industry for the betterment of our country. The time to act is now.
Mike Cawley is president/CEO of the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, which works to influence agriculture by exploring and improving production agriculture techniques and advancing plant science through research and discovery.