A 130-acre plot of willow in western New York is improving the cost-efficiency of harvesting willow biomass to produce biofuels. These improvements are the result of 20 years of research undertaken by the College of Environmental Science and Forestry at the State University of New York (SUNY-ESF) in Syracuse, New Yorka U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Sun Grant Initiative Regional Feedstock Partnerwhich was awarded funds to improve the potential of willow as a viable crop that can sustainably produce renewable fuels in the northeastern United States. 

The SUNY-ESF team began by conducting extensive research and testing, ultimately progressing to breeding more productive willow crop subspecies for use in the Northeast. Funding from the Sun Grant Initiative, a program that builds partnerships to overcome barriers inherent in growing and harvesting renewable feedstock, facilitated the field trialing of many SUNY-ESF willow clones over several years in a variety of environments in the Northeast. These trials have identified superior, high-yielding willow clones that are being commercialized for production today. A clone is an exact genetic replica of an original organism; each willow shrub is grown, or cloned, from one primary shrub. Still, harvesting was a major obstacle to increasing the economic viability of willow use because previous technologies could not cut multiple stems for collection in a time- or cost-efficient manner. In order to continue its work to combat this problem, SUNY-ESF competed for and was awarded a High-Tonnage Feedstock Logistics grant through DOE, which provides cost-shared funding to develop strategies, technologies, and purpose-designed machinery that will reduce the delivered cost of short-rotation woody biomass crops.

Willow harvesting

The willow plot managed by SUNY-ESF can provide reliable, cost-efficient harvests of feedstock in rotations of three years. (Photo courtesy of Tim Volk, SUNY-ESF)

Through its participation in the Sun Grant Initiative and use of the Feedstock Logistics funding, one of SUNY-ESF’s major partners–Case New Holland–was able to design, build, and demonstrate a short-rotation woody crop harvester prototype. The single-pass cut and chip system it created and tested is now commercially available to harvest hybrid poplars and shrub willows grown in a plantation system. The harvesting project also included other collaborative partners, including Greenwood Resources, Inc.; Mesa Reduction Engineering and Processing, Inc.; Applied Biorefinery Sciences, LLC; and ZeaChem, Inc. 

These improved harvesting technologies and high-yielding hybrid willow clones led to an expansion of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) to include willow production in northern and central New York in 2012. BCAP, housed under the Farm Service Agency, provides financial assistance to owners and operators of agricultural and non-industrial, private forest land who wish to establish, produce, and deliver biomass feedstock. Because many energy crops are perennials, they require more than one year to mature and reach their full yield potential. Willow, for example, usually takes four growing seasons until it is ready for its first harvest. Until a full harvest can be made, no income is derived from the crop. BCAP's economic assistance helps to offset this disadvantage to the producer. BCAP’s new willow project area accepted applications from producers from June through September 2012, with the potential to fund up to 3,500 total acres. The first planting for BCAP willow acreage will be implemented in the spring of this year.

Thanks to the work of SUNY-ESF and its collaborative partners, willow now has comparable biofuel yield potential to many other feedstocks, ranging from 7090 gallons of fuel per dry ton of willow. Today, at least one DOE Bioenergy Technologies Office-sponsored integrated biorefinery has started using willow chips in its conversion process, further increasing demand on producers for their crop, thus improving its economic viability.