Oklahoma set to plant first-ever 1,000 acre switchgrass field

April 23, 2008

ARDMORE, Okla. — Today, Oklahoma secured land for the world’s largest stand of switchgrass devoted to cellulosic ethanol production. Acknowledging concerns over ethanol production impacting food prices, Oklahoma advances switchgrass, a different type of energy crop, which has higher energy output than corn and does not compete with human or animal food sources.

The Oklahoma Bioenergy Center (OBC), a state-initiative championed by Gov. Brad Henry, secured land to enable the planting of more than 1,100 acres of production-scale demonstration fields for cellulosic energy crops, such as switchgrass and sorghum to contribute to the United States’ bioenergy effort. Planting will take place within the next 45 days.

The critical piece of this effort is 1,000 acres of switchgrass which will be planted near Guymon, Okla. in the state’s panhandle. This switchgrass field will be the first of its size anywhere in the world focused on biomass production. Additional acreage of sorghum and switchgrass will be planted near Chickasha and Maysville in central Oklahoma.

“Rising food costs recently resulted in a pushback against renewable fuels. However, cellulosic ethanol from sources like switchgrass and sorghum are non-competitive with food sources for animals and humans and remove cellulosic ethanol from this discussion,” said Oklahoma Secretary of Energy David Fleischaker. “More so, this dedicated land will allow us to demonstrate the advantages of switchgrass.”

Switchgrass is a perennial grass that is naturally drought resistant and grows on marginal lands. The OBC demonstration fields will provide academia and industry a unique “living laboratory” to understand the production and long-term impact of bioenergy crops, as well as experiment with new production techniques and critical harvest, collection and transport methods. The fields also will serve as a “living classroom” where agricultural producers, policymakers and the general public can see and experience these crops, which will play a key role in the United States’ energy future.

“These fields are vital for the continued development and understanding of dedicated energy crops,” said Michael A. Cawley, president and chief executive officer for the Noble Foundation, which will directly manage the Guymon site. “This is more than just a research project that ends in the field. We have a market endpoint.”

A cellulosic biorefinery currently being constructed by Abengoa Bioenergy in Hugoton, Kan., will be less than 35 miles from Guymon, and the switchgrass fields in the panhandle will provide material to this biorefinery. The Abengoa Bioenergy facility is expected to be operational in 2010.

“The value of the Oklahoma Bioenergy Center to the cellulosic ethanol industry cannot be overstated,” said Gerson Santos-Leon, executive vice president, Abengoa Bioenergy New Technologies. “The early and aggressive establishment of 1,000 acres of switchgrass will provide researchers, scientists, agricultural producers and industry – not only in Oklahoma but across the nation – with important information that will help establish the emerging cellulosic ethanol industry.”

Revenues received from the sale of biomass will be reinvested in the OBC for additional bioenergy and biofuel research.

The 1,000 acres of switchgrass leverages the extensive agricultural infrastructure and farming expertise located in Oklahoma’s panhandle.

This undertaking is made possible through a lease arrangement with Hitch Enterprises, Inc., one of the region’s most renowned agriculture operations. A family owned and managed agricultural company, Hitch Enterprises has conducted extensive cattle feeding, cattle production, pork production and agricultural operations near Guymon for 119 years.

The participation of Hitch Enterprises enables the concentrated establishment of the 1,000-acres in one geographic location, which will enable critical research in the areas of harvest, collection and transportation that challenge the emerging biofuels industry.

Signed into law in 2007, the OBC brings together Oklahoma’s comprehensive higher education institutions – the University of Oklahoma (OU) and Oklahoma State University (OSU) – with the world-class plant and agricultural research of The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation to initiate a biofuels industry within the state.

The OBC demonstration fields will benefit from the involvement of a contingent of national organizations. In addition to Abengoa Bioenergy, Ceres Inc., based in Thousand Oaks, Calif., will provide seed and agronomic direction for the establishment and management of the fields. Idaho National Laboratory, the lead feedstock supply and logistics laboratory for the Department of Energy, will provide expertise in harvest, collection and processing of biomass in coordination with Abengoa Bioenergy.

The Noble Foundation also will manage the Maysville sites. Oklahoma State University will manage the Chickasha site.

“The 1,000 acres of switchgrass marks another monumental event in Oklahoma’s heritage of energy production.” Fleischaker said. “I’m confident there are many more to come.”

For more information, visit the Oklahoma Bioenergy Center Web site.