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Energy from willows comes of age in upstate NY

Published on NewsOK Modified: December 23, 2012 at 1:37 pm •  Published: December 23, 2012

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.

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