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Plant eyed as power player in renewable fuels industry

| Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012, 7:26 p.m.
Farming director Sam Brake bends a stalk of Arundo donax toward the ground in a test plot behind the Biofuels Center of North Carolina in Oxford, N.C. AP

OXFORD, N.C. — It's fast-growing and drought-tolerant, producing tons of biomass per acre. It thrives even in poor soil and is a self-propagating perennial, so it requires little investment once established.

To people in the renewable fuels industry, Arundo donax — also known as “giant reed” — is nothing short of a miracle plant. An Oregon power plant is looking at it as a potential substitute for coal, and North Carolina boosters are salivating over the prospect of an ethanol bio-refinery that would bring millions of dollars in investment and dozens of high-paying jobs to hog country.

But to many scientists and environmentalists, Arundo looks less like a miracle than a nightmare waiting to happen. Officials in at least three states have banned the bamboo-like grass as a “noxious weed”; California has spent more than $70 million trying to eradicate it. The federal government has labeled it a “high risk” for invasiveness.

Many are comparing Arundo, which can reach heights of 30 feet in a single season, to another aggressive Asian transplant — the voracious kudzu vine.

More than 200 scientists recently sent a letter to the heads of federal agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency and the departments of Agriculture and Energy, urging them not to encourage the commercial planting of known invasives like Arundo.

“Many of today's most problematic invasive plants — from kudzu to purple loosestrife — were intentionally imported and released into the environment for horticultural, agricultural, conservation, and forestry purposes,” they wrote Oct. 22. “It is imperative that we learn from our past mistakes by preventing intentional introduction of energy crops that may create the next invasive species catastrophe particularly when introductions are funded by taxpayer dollars.”

Mark Conlon, vice president for sector development at the nonprofit Biofuels Center of North Carolina in Oxford, hates the comparison with “the weed that ate the South.”

“There's no market for kudzu,” says Conlon, who is among those promoting a proposed $170 million, 20 million-gallon-a-year ethanol project here — and Arundo's role in it. “There's no reason to manage it. It was thrown out in the worst places you can think of and left there.”

His message about Arundo: It'll be different this time. We can control it.

This fall, Chemtex International christened the world's first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant in the northwest Italian city of Crescentino. Turning inedible biomass into sugars, the company hopes to produce up to 20 million gallons of fuel a year.

By mid-2013, Chemtex wants to break ground on a like-sized plant that would employ 67 people in North Carolina. It has set its sights on the little city of Clinton, in the heart of hog country.

Attempts to commercialize Arundo donax in other parts of the United States have met with limited success.

When a company proposed to use Arundo for power generation in Florida, the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services drafted regulations requiring permits for plots larger than 2 acres. Although some permits have been issued, the large-scale project that prompted the regulations never materialized.

And when Portland General Electric decided to convert a power plant from coal to biomass, Oregon state agriculture officials conducted a risk assessment for Arundo. Last year, the state authorized a 400-acre “control area,” prohibiting plantings within a mile of water bodies and requiring growers to post a $1 million eradication bond.

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