Energy from willows comes of age in upstate NY

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