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Today's Date: Monday, February 16, 2009
Digg Del.icio.us Email Florida Finds Destiny in Energy Farm
Developers of a proposed sustainable city in the Sunshine State have planted
sorghum for biofuel and also intend to grow jatropha and algae. But will the
crops really benefit the environment?
by: Rachel Barron and Jennifer Kho
August 29, 2008
Sorghum plants for making ethanol grows at Destiny Sustainable Energy Farms in
Destiny Advertisement Florida has become the latest state to plant so-called
"energy crops" for biofuels.
Destiny, a proposed community that intends to become an eco city, this week
announced its plans to grow crops such as sweet sorghum, jatropha and algae to
produce biofuels from nonfood materials and showcase sustainable farming
So far, the Destiny Sustainable Energy Farm said it has planted 20 acres of
sorghum, a grass that requires less water than corn, the most common crop used
to make ethanol in the United States, and that can grow in less-fertile soil.
The farm expects to harvest its first plants later this year.
The farm also plans to experiment with different varieties of sweet sorghum,
test the growth in different soil conditions and try different treatments to
increase crop yield, according to Destiny.
The University of Florida will measure the yield and estimate the potential
ethanol production of the plants to determine the cost of producing fuel from
these energy crops. The plan is for the university to assess which variety will
produce the most fuel with the least impact to the environment, said Randy
Johnson, chief operating officer of the Destiny project.
The Destiny farm joins several other examples of efforts to grow nonfood crops
specifically for biofuels.
In August, Ceres told Greentech Media it had begun harvesting switchgrass and
sorghum seeds for biofuels (see Ceres Reaps First Switchgrass, Sorghum
Harvests). And in April, the state of Oklahoma said it would plant more than
1,100 acres of switchgrass for ethanol (see Oklahoma Switches to Switchgrass).
But while the idea of growing nonfood fuel crops could be catching on, it's
controversial. Critics are concerned that growing energy crops could use up land
that could otherwise be used to grow food.
After all, competition with food is one of the major issues that moving to
nonfood crops is intended to solve. Concerns that biofuels could be harming the
environment or leading to higher food prices have been a bane to the industry's
reputation, and higher prices for current starchy materials, such as corn and
soybeans, that are used to make the fuels have cut into biofuel companies'
Advocates of cellulosic ethanol have said the fuel could use waste materials
that aren't used for food today, expanding the amount of ethanol that could be
made without competing with food. They also claim that cellulosic ethanol can
theoretically be made more cheaply than ethanol from starches like corn, but so
far, cellulosic ethanol - only produced in demonstration volumes – has remained
For one thing, harvesting and gathering far-flung material such as switchgrass
has proven difficult and more costly than some companies had expected.
The idea of farming the nonfood materials is alluring because it would make it
easier to grow and collect mass quantities of the stuff, meaning it would be
cheaper to make into fuel.
Destiny is a proposed city in central Florida that plans to operate with minimal
impact on the environment and to attract businesses focused on developing clean
Fred DeLuca, a co-founder of Subway Restaurants, and Anthony V. Pugliese III, a
South Florida land developer, have bought 41,300 acres of land on which to build
the green community, which is still in the planning stages. A portion of the
purchased land is being used for the farm.
Johnson said the farm wouldn't displace food crops. Instead, the project hopes
to evaluate whether it would be more lucrative for farmers that currently grow
less eco-friendly products, such as sod, to grow nonfood energy crops instead.
Sod requires more water than sorghum, Johnson said.
The farm currently uses a solar irrigation system and no fertilizers, which
could end up polluting soil and water, to grow its sorghum, he said.
Still, the farm's efforts might not be enough to ward off criticism of the idea
of growing crops specifically for fuel.
In January, Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, said that
using farmland for fuel crops will jeopardize the food supply (see Lester Brown
Talks Smack About Ethanol). He has argued that if the price for nonfood crops
grow enough to make it worthwhile, farmers will want to switch - and will want
to use the best land to maximize profits.
A number of groups have questioned the impact of biofuels from crops like corn,
sugarcane and soy.
Oxfam International, a global nonprofit focused on reducing poverty, blames
biofuels for contributing up to a 30 percent increase in global food prices.
Studies published in the journal Science earlier this year concluded that
biofuels may cause more greenhouse-gas emissions than traditional fuels and a
Time magazine article in March reported that farmers had cleared trees in the
Amazon rain forest to plant biofuel crops.
On the flip side, other researchers have found that biofuels aren't at fault for
driving food costs up or wreaking havoc on the environment.
In April, researchers at Texas A&M University published a study concluding that
growing corn prices have little to do with biofuels.
And in June, the Carnegie Institution for Science chimed in with another study
that estimated that up to 1.8 million square miles of abandoned farmland is
potentially available for growing energy crops globally.
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8/29/08 2:48 PM
A planned development of this magnitude has enormous potential for good
ecological design. It is way easier to implement innovative techniques on a
blank slate than trying to work with a city to get things done. A concentrating
solar thermal/biomass hybrid trigeneration plant would be perfect to provide
baseload electricity, hot water and cooling for a planned development like
Destiny. The developers would need to run insulated pipes carrying hot water and
chilled water to each proposed building site. This would be well within the
range of the possible, especially with strict green building requirements for
the residents and businesses who build there. If they used some thermal storage
and biomass gasification to sustain the plant at night and when it's cloudy,
they could produce terra preta as a by-product--this could be applied to fields
that produce the biomass, thus reducing water usage and (along with good compost
and crop diversity) eliminate fertilizers and biocides. With good permaculture
design, enormous yields are possible with minimal inputs to the system. Most of
the resulting producer gas would be used to turn the turbines and heat and chill
water but some could be skimmed off to operate the farming equipment. Another
possibility for a humid, solar abundant place like Florida is that drinking
water could be harvested out of thin air with a condenser driven by the central
plant's thermal energy. I'm not sure if the water returns would be worth the
energy invested though. Rainwater catchment, water efficiency and biological
water recycling would probably provide more than enough. People need to start
paying attention to these synergies and get on a new path of extreme efficiency
which leads to a higher quality of life for everyone.
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Ceres Reaps First Switchgrass, Sorghum Harvests
Oklahoma Switches to Switchgrass
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