In the fall of 2005, Burton English and Daniel De La Torre Ugarte, agricultural economics professors at the University of Tennessee, were asked to lead a study on the viability of renewable energy in the United States. Intrigued, the professors took on the project.
They recently completed the data crunching and found some intriguing possibilities.
The group that asked English for the study is 25X'25 — an advocacy group calling for 25 percent of the energy consumed in the United States to be provided from farms, ranches and forests by the year 2025.
“In addition, the group wants to make sure the country will still have sufficient resources to provide abundant food, feed and fiber,” says English. “So, with this study, we wanted to check the feasibility to accomplish the vision.”
English and De La Torre Ugarte found that to accomplish 25X'25's vision, the United States needs to produce almost 30 quads of energy. A quad is a grouping of British thermal units, a heating unit. About 15 billion gallons of ethanol creates 1.7 quads of energy.
Currently, the nation is producing about 4.5 billion gallons of ethanol.
“The study found we're capable of producing almost 87 billion gallons of ethanol. In addition, we can create 900-plus billion kilowatt hours of electricity.
“That's what would be available in 2025 if our nation has the will to replace 25 percent of our energy with new sources. We looked at all renewable resources — wind, solar, hydro, geo-thermal — and about half of the 25 percent goal can come from these non-agriculture sources. But 15.4 quads would have to come from biomass resources.”
The study made some assumptions. One was that by 2012, conversion of ethanol from cellulose feed stocks like trees, corn stalks or switchgrass will be economically viable.
“In our study, we allowed conversion of pastureland and rangeland that doesn't require irrigation water to dedicated energy crops. In the analysis we had to make up for any feed loss by requiring additional hayland if pastureland is converted.”
English found that 105 million acres of dedicated energy crops would come in. The country would lose about 20 million acres of soybeans. Corn acreage would stay relatively constant.
The study also found that net farm income would increase by $180 billion. In the last year alone, it would see a $37 billion jump.
“What we're doing in the analysis — and what agriculture needs — is taking the resources that currently exist and requiring more intensive management. In return, the farmers' income will rise by producing an energy crop.
“The demand for energy in this nation is simply huge. Until we did the analysis, we didn't realize what a huge undertaking this is — it's like introducing another corn industry to the country, maybe a bit more.
“Think about it: soybeans currently take up 70 million acres and corn is a little higher. In 1970, we had very few soybean acres. But in 30-some years, we've increased soybean acreage in a big way.”
So such an acreage shift to a new crop isn't unheard of, English points out. But he admits “it would be a very large change, to say the least. But in my opinion, it would be a win for agriculture, a win for rural development and a win for the nation.”
In the aforementioned $180 billion, government savings are included. If net farm income increases as expected, the prices of traditional crops will go up.
“That's because some of the cropland they're currently on would be lost to energy crops. That would lead to those traditional crops rising. That, in turn, would mean government payments would go down.
“In our analysis, we assumed no change in the current (government farm) programs. However, with an increase in net farm income, one would likely see program changes.”
The big cautionary note from the study is for livestock producers. Under his scenario, English found ranchers would have to increase management of their rangelands and pastures. That's because much of the rangelands would be producing switchgrass or another energy crop.
“Feed costs of corn would rise about 70 cents, which would likely lead to a reduction in herd size and inventory.”
What about concerns that food crops will be pushed aside by energy crops? How might the cropping landscape change?
“Even though 25X'25 calls for more renewable energy, we must also continue to produce abundant, safe, affordable food, feed and fiber.
“We pushed the ag system to the point where we felt prices of commodities weren't above those we've seen in the past. So corn increased 70 cents, soybeans increased $2, and wheat increased 48 cents. We feel those prices aren't so high that the cost of food in the nation will be impacted significantly.”
As for the landscape issue, having 100 million acres of switchgrass would make a difference.
“In the past we have seen a huge decline in crops such as oats and put soybeans came in. We no longer fed working farm animals and this enabled the industry to grow more cash crops such as soybeans. As we moved towards a more mechanical system, cash crops became the norm.”
There are other benefits to the plan. Putting a dedicated energy crop like switchgrass back on the land would increase wildlife habitat. That crop is a native plant and would be harvested, typically, once a year during the winter.
“This would be a win for wildlife.”
Reactions to the study, out since November, have been “very positive.”
And English's work with switchgrass at UT continues.
“Don Tyler, Roland Roberts, and I have a project with 32 acres of switchgrass on station land and 91 acres among five farmers. We're beginning the fourth year of the test on the station and the third for the farmers.
“We're having good success at identifying how to grow it and learn management techniques. County Extension agents, especially Ken Goddard, have been part of this project.
“It's hoped that linking research and extension in this manner will hasten the adoption of dedicated energy crops in the future. I'm sure Ken and other Extension agents are answering a lot of questions from farmers about (switchgrass).”
English is refining the report, doing state-by-state analyses.
“We haven't completed it yet, but we hope to have preliminary numbers for some of the winter meetings. By the end of January we hope to have numbers for each Delta state.”