Triple Bio: Research
Escalating energy prices, particularly for
transportation, have revived interest from consumers, policy
makers, and industry in the potential for developing bioenergy
resources, specifically liquid biofuels which can supplement
petroleum-based gasoline and diesel. The expectation is that
biofuels may now be more economically competitive with their
fossil fuel counterparts, and that biofuels may help ease tightening
demand, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and reduce reliance
on imported petroleum from hostile countries. Furthermore, there
is an expressed desire to develop the entire value chain for
biofuel production within the state in order to keep energy
dollars – and the multiplier effect of those dollars –
in the local economy.
Recent developments in the state have demonstrated
a rapidly growing market for refined products, as well as emerging
processing infrastructure – especially for biodiesel.
This emerging market, however, is being served by feedstock
oil imported from the Midwest, Canada or the tropics as there
is very limited in-state production of biofuel feedstock crops.
The critical question remaining for an “in-state value
chain” for biofuels is whether farmers will plant the
necessary acreage of feedstock crops to support local demand?
The traditional answer to this question is “if you build
it [the market and processing infrastructure], they [farmers]
will come”, but this expectation may be overly naïve
as there are very significant obstacles yet to be overcome.
These obstacles include:
1) Knowledge of the agronomics of oil seed crop
production and availability of locally adapted crop varieties;
2) Increased risk associated with producing new
3) Insufficient prices for break-even production
[not even profitable production]; and
4) The considerable amount of acreage necessary
to meet demand for oil.
Attempts to encourage feedstock production,
without full consideration for these obstacles and others, have
resulted in increased skepticism from farmers and therefore
no increases in production of feedstock crops. In order to build
the full value-chain for biofuels in the state, including feedstock
production, these key obstacles will need to be overcome. In
contrast, many growers in Minnesota receive part of their farm
income from the corn crop and the other half from the farmer-owned
It is important to understand the core starting
point differences between the Pacific Northwest and the Midwest
in building the bioeconomy. The Midwest’s starting point
was two existing mega-crops (corn and soybeans). Both are in
a glut of supply. We produce over 350 agricultural products
in Washington State in a variety of different agricultural systems.
Current dedicated“energy crops”, such as oilseed
crops, are only minor crops and cellulosic ethanol technology
(for converting wheat straw or other biomass to ethanol) is
not fully market ready. Celluosic ethanol is in the pilot demonstration
stage of development. The demonstration plant is located in
Ames, Iowa (Iowa State University).
Washington State University, in partnership
with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and Natural
Resource Conservation Services (NRCS) have more than two decades
of program activities which are supportive of sustainable, bioenergy
development in the state, particularly addressing the key obstacles
to the establishment of viable feedstock crop production in
the region. In addition to WSU, ARS, and NRCS, the University
of Idaho and Oregon State University have key capabilities.
The potential benefits are regional. The recent groundswell
of interest in bioenergy production outside of the agricultural
sector provides a tremendous opportunity for WSU to partner
with agricultural industry to overcome many of the historical
barriers to the introduction of viable bioenergy crops and consequently
spur economic development in our state and region. The goals
of our efforts in this area are to document the potential for
sustainably producing bioenergy crops within the context of
existing and future cropping systems and agroclimates of WA
state, improve the yield and economic performance of these crops
with best agronomic management and genetic selection, identify
viable crop rotation schemes that take advantage of these crops
in providing rotational benefits to the productivity of other
crops in the system, identify useful co-products and crop uses
for these bioenergy crops, and to facilitate the adoption of
bioenergy crops in the state (and beyond).