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Energy from willows comes of age in upstate NY

Mary Esch, Associated Press

In this Sept. 30, 2008 photo provided by Cornell University, Larry Abrahamson, a plant scientist from the State University of New York's College of Environmental Science and Forestry, stands beside a stand of shrub willow in Boisbriand, Quebec, grown as part of a research program out of SUNY ESF and Cornell University. (AP Photo/Cornell University, Larry Smart)

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) -- Energy from willows is moving out of the experimental stage and into commercial production in New York.

Farms are growing willow shrubs and selling them to a utility, a nursery sells them commercially and plans are being made for refineries.

"The industry has a lot of potential," said Robert McDonagh, owner of Celtic Energy Farm in Cape Vincent on Lake Ontario, which was formed by a group of investors a few years ago to grow shrub willow in northern New York as a renewable energy source.

The farm owns or rent 1,100 acres where it grows willow to supply ReEnergy, a renewable energy producer with power plants in northern New York and several other states.

"The biofuel industry is in its infancy; we're in on the ground floor," McDonagh said.

A 2007 federal law established the National Renewable Fuel Standard with a production target of 36 billion gallons of biofuel per year by 2022. It also requires that biofuels reduce greenhouse gases 50 to 60 percent compared with petroleum-based fuel.

With a typical yield of five dry tons per acre per year, 800 acres of willow could produce one megawatt of electricity, enough for 750 homes for one year, said Timothy Volk, a researcher at SUNY's College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. Economic models predict willow cultivation would create 4.5 to eight jobs per thousand acres, he said.

Because of its rapid growth, willow produces eight times as much yield per acre as a typical Northeastern forest, said Larry Smart, an associate professor of horticulture at Cornell University.

"One of the really important factors with these energy crops is finding the right place on the landscape to use them," said Tom Richard, a biofuels researcher at Penn State. "Willow is very well adapted to our region. We're looking to place energy crops where they can provide maximum environmental benefits and minimal effect on food crops."

Willow grows well on land that's not suitable for other crops. Because it has deep roots and is perennial, it's more tolerant of flooding and drought than annual crops are, Richard said.

To promote planting of fuel crops to meet the 2022 target, a group of universities, businesses and government agencies formed a group that's working on two commercial-scale refineries that will produce gasoline and diesel fuel from willow and other biomass.

This year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture invested $4.3 million to encourage the growth of shrub willow as a renewable energy fuel in central and northern New York. Landowners must have at least 100 acres available and have a contract to sell the harvested and chipped willow wood to ReEnergy.

Development of shrub willow for bioenergy began in Sweden in the mid-'70s. New York researchers started breeding it as a fuel crop suitable for the Northeast and Midwest in the mid-'90s but before it could become a viable crop for large-scale production, researchers had to breed varieties that were resistant to beetles and diseases and provided a high yield per acre.

Smart has developed varieties that are now commercially available through Double A Willow, a plant nursery in Fredonia in western New York. The 20-foot-tall, multi-stemmed willow bushes are ready to harvest in about three years and provide repeated harvests over 25 years.

Willow is also being grown on a smaller scale to heat institutional buildings at Colgate University in central New York, Cornell's Finger Lakes campus and Middlebury College in Vermont.

Several companies have built plants to process different types of liquid biofuel from woody plant material, including willow. "The price is going to drop as more commercial plants are built," Richard said.

Innovative willow-to-fuel technologies will develop faster when the supply of willow increases, McDonagh and fellow investors in the Celtic Energy Farm believe.

"If there's a crop in the ground and available, the projects will come," McDonagh said. "We won't really know for 10 to 15 years."

New York state could dedicate up to 1.7 million acres of non-forest land to growing bioenergy crops such as willow, estimated Volk.

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that 190 million acres of land in the United States could be used to produce energy crops.