The U.S. Department of Energy on Jan. 8 issued an environmental review of its plans to support development of a test program for high energy crops in the southeast U.S. that can be used for energy production, including biomass firing in power plants.
DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA–E) prepared this Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) to evaluate the potential environmental impacts of a plan to develop and implement one or more programs to catalyze the research, development, and demonstration of engineered high energy crops (EHECs) in the Southeast. EHECs are agriculturally-viable photosynthetic species containing genetic material that have been intentionally introduced through biotechnology, interspecific hybridization, or other engineering processes (excluding processes that occur in nature without human intervention), and specifically engineered to increase energy production independent of increasing the amount of biomass by producing fuel molecules that can be introduced easily into existing energy infrastructure.
EHECs present a promising renewable energy source that, by virtue of biological carbon capture, has a reduced carbon life-cycle, decreasing the production of greenhouse gases and allowing for domestic production of renewable fuels. A main component of the proposed EHEC Programs would be DOE or other federal or state agencies providing financial assistance for confined field trials to evaluate the performance of EHECs that will facilitate the commercial development and deployment of biofuels. Confined field trials may range in size and could include development scale (up to 5 acres), pilot scale (up to 250 acres), or demonstration scale (up to 15,000 acres). The field trials would demonstrate the EHEC’s biological and economic viability and further DOE ARPA-E’s mission.
Energy crops are grown specifically for their biomass or fuel value. Biomass includes cellulose (a carbohydrate that is the principal component of wood and linked to lignin molecules that strengthen plant cell walls) as its main combustible component. Biomass can be converted into biofuels (such as ethanol or biodiesel) or combusted directly for its energy content to generate electricity or heat.
Examples of EHECs include, but are not limited to, crops currently being investigated under ARPA-E’s PETRO Program, such as engineered varieties of camelina, loblolly pine, tobacco, giant cane, energy beet, sugarcane, miscanthus, sorghum and switchgrass.