A local nonprofit is considering using a species of giant cane to reduce reliance on oil, but some are concerned that the plant will be as invasive as kudzu.
A local nonprofit is considering using a species of giant cane to reduce reliance on oil, but some are concerned that the plant will be as invasive as kudzu.

An environmental nonprofit wants to reduce the amount of oil North Carolina imports by using giant cane-derived biofuel, but critics are concerned the foreign plant will turn into another kudzu.

The Biofuels Center of North Carolina is working with farmers and manufacturers to replace 10 percent of imported petroleum with biofuels by 2017. Reaching that goal will require utilizing untapped resources, including Arundo donax, a biomass-producing species of giant cane, said Bo Harrison, a project manager at the center.

“Of the different possible plants that you can grow, [Arundo] is the one with the highest biomass per acre with the lowest establishment cost,” Harrison said. “In terms of economics, it makes a whole lot of sense.”

Arundo requires little land and fertilizer to grow, and it can tolerate extreme weather conditions. Most importantly, Harrison said that the plant can produce up to 20 pounds per acre of biomass, more than twice the amount of biomass that switchgrass, another biofuel source, can yield. The amount of biomass that can come from Arundo renders it a commercially viable alternative to other biomass-producing plants.

The center is exploring the potential downsides of using Arundo as a biofuel source. The plant has a history of invasiveness in California and Texas, where it caused erosion, flooding and damage to native habitats. But Arundo has come under fire because many people believe the plant will grow rampantly throughout the South, similar to kudzu in the 20th century. Kudzu is an invasive climbing vine that has killed numerous trees and shrubs in the South.

In October, more than 200 scientists discouraged the use of the plant in a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies.

“It is imperative that we learn from our past mistakes by preventing intentional introduction of energy crops that may create the next invasive species catastrophe, particularly when introductions are funded by taxpayer dollars,” the letter read.

The center, in conjunction with state agriculture officials, has not overlooked these concerns. Its best management practices for energy crops in North Carolina include keeping a reasonable distance from streams and irrigation canals and setting buffer zones of at least 20 feet around production fields. But critics feel that planting Arundo in a hurricane-prone state such as North Carolina could still be a dangerous move. To them, the potential environmental costs of introducing the plant at a large-scale are not worth the benefits.

When the center began its push for biofuels in North Carolina in 2007, it ruled out the use of corn ethanol because it might take away from the food supply, Harrison noted. Instead, the center looked to cellulosic ethanol, a biofuel produced from wood, grasses or the inedible parts of plants. The use of Arundo would continue to promote cellulosic ethanol.

“Biofuels can be really good,” said William Chameides, dean of the Nicholas School of Environment. “Cellulosic processes are much better and really push the technology in the right direction.”

Supplanting 10 percent of petroleum-based fuels with biofuels will be a boon to the North Carolina economy, said sophomore Phoenica Zhang, an environmental science and policy major, noting that a more prominent biofuels system would lead to stronger ties with the forestry and agriculture sectors and create employment opportunities in the rural community.

“Part of our goal is to uplift North Carolina’s rural economy, give farmers a chance to plant and grow a new crop that will make them money as well,” Harrison said. “Also, other jobs will spurn— [such as] people driving trucks to take materials from place to place, loggers cutting down trees. We certainly hope to be an economy-booster.”

Developing a biofuels industry sector has not been a process without significant challenges, Harrison said. Developing biofuels requires building different sectors to work in tandem with each other.

“They say in business that it’s hard enough to achieve one vehicle at a time, but when you have to achieve two or more vehicles at a time, it becomes exponentially hard,” Harrison said. “We’re trying to create a market for biofuels, we’re trying to create production for biofuels, we’re trying to create other things for biofuels, and all this stuff kind of has to happen at the same time.”

The center has welcomed these challenges, however, and accepted that overcoming obstacles comes with the territory of effecting major change.

“We’re excited about the returns so far and the potential in the next five years of existence to really bring large capacities for alternative fuels to North Carolina,” said Wil Glenn, director of communications and public affairs at the center.