Plant eyed as power player in renewable fuels industry
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.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Obama reaches out to Jewish community
- Senate still works on NSA proposal as deadline nears
- Cuban talks to continue
- Senate OKs fast-track trade bill sought by Obama
- Suspect in killings of wealthy D.C. family arrested
- Coal’s worst fears affirmed in analysis of Obama climate plan
- Calif. farmers’ group will cut water use in historic deal
- 28 evacuated as fire hits oil platform off Louisiana coast
- Police officials rethink approach to training
- Giant hole forms near golf course
- Couple pleads not guilty in Kentucky bourbon thefts