Switchgrass: The Super Plant Savior?

ByABC News via logo
February 1, 2006, 5:28 PM

Feb. 1, 2006 — -- It grows throughout the Great Plains and parts of the South, can be used to make ethanol -- an efficient and environmentally friendly fuel for cars -- and it has the potential to reduce the nation's dependence on oil.

Switchgrass is the perennial wonder plant touted by President Bush in Tuesday's State of the Union address and in his remarks made today in Nashville, Tenn., where he joked that he could have a new career in farming. "All of a sudden, you know, you may be in the energy business," Bush said. "You know, by being able to grow grass on the ranch and have it harvested and converted into energy. And that's what's close to happening."

Close, but how close? Bush's goal is to increase research into the production of ethanol using such elements as grass and wood chips, which could make it a cost-effective energy source by 2012. The White House says ethanol could potentially amount to 30 percent of the nation's current fuel use.

But some who work in the industry say the research is already well under way, and what's really needed is a commercial plant to convert switchgrass to ethanol on a large scale.

David Bransby, a professor at Auburn University in Auburn, Ala., supervises research into ways to optimize switchgrass production. He told ABC News that researchers know how to grow, plant, harvest and deliver switchgrass, but now they need a market for it. And the biggest barrier to that is government policy.

Bransby said the Department of Energy will only fund a pilot project to produce energy using switchgrass, about 10 to 15 tons a day. There are no plans for commercial plants that could develop technology to convert switchgrass into ethanol on a large scale.

Craig Stevens, a spokesman for the Department of Energy, told ABC News that the government wants to make sure the projects are viable on a small scale before expanding. "We need to walk before we can run," Stevens said, "and we need to make sure these technologies work."

Ethanol as a fuel is nothing new. Dan Sperling, a professor at the University of California at Davis and director of its Institute of Transportation Studies, noted that even early Model T Fords used ethanol, and it's an ingredient in beer and wine.

Most ethanol produced in America is made from corn -- a less-efficient material than switchgrass -- but corn producers are supported by a large lobby and huge government subsidies. There is no similar lobby or investment for grass or wood.

"When you make ethanol from corn, for every gallon of fuel you get, you put in about seven-tenths of a gallon of fossil energy, oil or natural gas," he said. "That's only a small improvement in terms of greenhouse gases."

On the other hand, he said, "ethanol from cellulose [like switchgrass] is a great energy strategy because for every gallon of ethanol, a tiny amount of fossil material [is used.] There's a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gases, so from an energy perspective it's far superior."

"We've known this for a long time," Sperling said. "Why has nothing happened? Part of it is we do need more R and D [research and development], but I think what we really need is a commitment on the industry and business side to invest."

For the government's part, Bush's 2007 budget will include $150 million -- a $59 million increase over the fiscal year 2006 -- to help develop bio-based transportation fuels from agricultural waste products, such as wood chips, stalks or switchgrass.

"Corn is an OK source for ethanol," said Daniel Kammen, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and director of its Institute of the Environment. "But if you really want to hit a home run, you need to go to cellulose."

Other countries have blazed a trail in the conversion of cellulose to ethanol. "Brazil is a big success story in this," Kammen said, noting that 15 years ago the nation began using cellulose from sugar cane to create ethanol, and it now uses 50 percent less gasoline.

Sweden also has two federal plants that create ethanol using cellulose, and there are small plants in Kansas and California working to refine the process here. In Brazil, he said, the price of ethanol is half that of gasoline, and Kammen estimates that here it could be 60 percent, even if some of it is made with corn.

For consumers, switching to ethanol would cost only about $100 per car. Kammen said all it takes are some new hoses and a new gas cap. "This is actually a switch we could make very easily and very quickly," he said.

Kammen is working to get an initiative on California's November ballot requiring that all new cars sold in the state be flex-fuel ready within five years. According to UC Berkeley, in 2004, ethanol-blended gasoline accounted for just 2 percent of all fuel sold in the United States, though nearly 5 million vehicles are already equipped.

"Converting to fuel ethanol will not require a big change in the economy," Kammen said. "We are already ethanol ready. If ethanol were available on the supply side, the demand is there."

ABC News' Tarana Harris and Brian Hartman contributed to this report.