Willow sex breakthrough bodes well for biomass
Farmers in the Northeast and Midwest may soon be growing willow trees for biomass power, according to a recent announcement from Hazel R. O`Leary, Secretary of Energy. Part of the Clinton administration`s “Biomass Power for Rural Development” initiative, the program is estimated to cost almost $14 million over six years, with a 45 percent federal investment. Niagara Mohawk Power Corp. of Syracuse, N.Y., representing the Salix Consortium, is being awarded the first cost-shared cooperative research and development agreement to grow energy feedstock willows and generate electricity from this fuel.
Hybrid willow species are being developed to be fast growing and resistant to drought and disease. Male willow trees are fast growing and can thrive in soils and climates less suitable for other crops. Until recently, the commercial potential of willow trees was severely limited by scientific difficulties in determining the gender of the trees at a young age. But researchers at the Department of Energy`s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, working with Swedish scientists through the International Energy Agency, have identified a DNA marker which determines sex in hybrid willow trees, facilitating early gender knowledge.
The Salix Consortium pools the combined research and investment power of more than 25 corporations, associations, academic institutions and regional government agencies with five power generating companies. Together they will develop the new energy crop on 2,600 acres of land. Twenty-six local farmers have committed land and resources for the enterprise. The various facilities involved are expected to produce between 37 and 47 MW of electricity through co-fired applications. The project is a multiphased endeavor to establish willow trees as one of the first commercial energy crops for power production by 2000.
Identifying new feedstocks and developing environmentally friendly, commercially viable biomass energy systems will be a primary focus of the new project. One of its major goals will be the achievement of a delivered cost of willow feedstock without subsidies at less than $2/MBtu by 2001.
The projected 40,000 to 60,000 acres in central and western New York expected to be planted with willow by 2010 is expected to produce crop fuel sales of almost $20 million annually, with electricity sales derived from biomass fuels approaching $135 million yearly. Willow crops will also be evaluated at field test sites in states to include Wisconsin, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Vermont.