Switchgrass … Energy Source of the Future? Not!

By David L. Brown

President Bush told us in the SOTU address that switchgrass will solve our energy problem. “Switchgrass”? WHAT! Is the USDA going to start paying farmers to grow … switchgrass?! Well, this is something that will grow on poor soils, so let’s imagine that we are going to plow up and seed these poor soils to switchgrass. Then, the first rain that comes along is going to erode the hell out of it, but nevermind, that will just enrich the Delta I suppose. But then we have the problem of harvesting the switchgrass, drying the switchgrass, transporting the switchgrass, and somehow processing the switchgrass to produce energy. I have seen a suggestion that it be mixed with coal to feed power plants, so it would have to be prepared somehow, perhaps by being chopped and run through a pelleting mill, then added to the coal stream.

Hmmm, plowing, seeding, harvesting, drying, transporting, pelleting, mixing …. doesn’t all that use ENERGY? Yes, it does, and where does that energy come from? Why, most of it will probably have to come from … wa-a-a-a-ait for it! … OIL! Probably (almost certainly) more of the stuff than the energy contributed by the switchgrass. And then we have to factor in the environmental costs (dredging the rivers, etc.) and energy costs of building and maintaining the machinery, repairing the roads, etc. that will be involved in this, but don’t tell anybody about that.

OR, we could process the switchgrass in digesters to produce methane gas. The problem with that is that we really still have a fair amount of natural gas; it’s petroleum that we need to replace. Same applies to coal in the power plant scenario above. And, using any of these feedstocks — coal, switchgrass, methane — will all result in the addition of CO2 to the atmosphere. When what we desperately need is “clean” energy (nuclear, hydro, solar, wind), why go barking off into the woods after these stupid alternatives?

Hmmmm, so what’s the deal with switchgrass? Could it be politically motivated? Do I smell a potential boondoggle government giveaway program to pay farmers to grow switchgrass on their worthless land? YES I DO, cynic that I am. I will make this prediction: We will never see anything coming out of this switchgrass scenario. Of all the things Bush could have jumped on in his SOTU address, this is the most off the wall, stupid one I can imagine.

Mother Nature already has a nifty program to convert switchgrass into a usable commodity. It’s called grazing, and it converts the grass into beef. Hmmmm, let’s see …. if we can feed T-bones and rump roasts into the power plants ….. Ummm, no.

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