OXFORD, N.C. (AP) — It's fast-growing and drought-tolerant, producing tons of biomass per acre. It thrives even in poor soil and is a self-propagating perennial, so it requires little investment once established.
To people in the renewable fuels industry, Arundo donax — also known as "giant reed" — is nothing short of a miracle plant. An Oregon power plant is looking at it as a potential substitute for coal, and North Carolina boosters are salivating over the prospect of an ethanol bio-refinery that would bring millions of dollars in investment and dozens of high-paying jobs to hog country.
But to many scientists and environmentalists, Arundo looks less like a miracle than a nightmare waiting to happen. Officials in at least three states have banned the bamboo-like grass as a "noxious weed"; California has spent more than $70 million trying to eradicate it. The federal government has labeled it a "high risk" for invasiveness.
Many are comparing Arundo, which can reach heights of 30 feet in a single season, to another aggressive Asian transplant — the voracious kudzu vine.
More than 200 scientists recently sent a letter to the heads of federal agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Departments of Agriculture and Energy, urging them not to encourage the commercial planting of known invasives like Arundo.
"Many of today's most problematic invasive plants — from kudzu to purple loosestrife — were intentionally imported and released into the environment for horticultural, agricultural, conservation, and forestry purposes," they wrote Oct. 22. "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."
Mark Conlon, vice president for sector development at the nonprofit Biofuels Center of North Carolina in Oxford, hates the comparison with "the weed that ate the South."
"There's no market for kudzu," says Conlon, who is among those promoting a proposed $170 million, 20 million-gallon-a-year ethanol project here — and Arundo's role in it. "There's no reason to manage it. It was thrown out in the worst places you can think of and left there."
His message about Arundo: It'll be different this time. We can control it.
But Mark Newhouser, who has spent nearly 20 years hacking this "nasty plant" from California's riverbanks and wetlands, has his doubts.
"Why take a chance?" he asks.
The back wall of the North Carolina biofuels center's lobby is dominated by a large timeline, beginning with the General Assembly's 2006 recognition of the state's potential as a biofuels leader.
The display ends with a panel declaring "10% in 10 Years" — meaning that by 2017, a decade after the center's creation, officials hope companies here will be producing the equivalent of a tenth of the liquid transportation fuels consumed in the state annually, or 600 million gallons of renewable biofuel a year.
"An extraordinarily audacious goal," W. Steven Burke, the center's president and CEO, says proudly.
Near the middle of the timeline is this: "November 2011: 50-acre energy grass propagation nursery established with Arundo donax."
The center's staff has explored a variety of biofuel raw materials, from food crops like corn, sugar beets and industrial sweet potatoes, to cottonwood and loblolly pine trees. Even pond scum — or duckweed. All were either hard to raise in quantity, too expensive or more valuable for other uses.
The staff also studied so-called "energy grasses" — giant Miscanthus, coastal Bermudagrass, switchgrass. Out behind the center, farming director Sam Brake planted test plots of four varieties of sorghum.
But for hardiness, ease of cultivation and maintenance, and, above all, yield per acre, none comes even close to Arundo donax.
"Wow! Exclamation point," says Burke, who, in his matching gray suit and shirt and with his snow-white hair and beard, evokes the evangelical preacher.
Believed to have sprung from the Indian subcontinent, Arundo has spread around the globe. Europeans have been using it for centuries in the production of reeds for woodwind instruments.
Like kudzu, which came to the United States as part of Japan's exhibit at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Arundo arrived here in the mid- to late 19th century. And also like kudzu, Arundo was once touted as a perfect crop to help stem erosion. In California and Texas, farmers, ranchers and government workers enthusiastically planted it along waterways and drainage ditches. Shallow rooted, the canes would break off and move downstream, starting new stands.
Arundo has become "naturalized" in 25 warmer-weather states, according to a USDA weed risk analysis released in June.
In banning it, California, Nevada and Texas have said the plant crowds out native species and consumes precious water.
The Tennessee Exotic Pest Plant Council lists it as a "Significant Threat." Virginia officials have labeled it "moderately invasive." The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources has categorized giant reed as "occasionally invasive." But that might change if it were to be promoted as a commercial crop, says Elizabeth Byers, a vegetation ecologist with the agency's wildlife diversity unit.
"I certainly wouldn't want to see any invasive species used as biomass," she says. "Because they can escape."
North Carolina is keeping an eye on Arundo, but the folks in Oxford say past need not be prologue.
Earlier this fall, Chemtex International christened the world's first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant in the northwest Italian city of Crescentino. Turning inedible biomass into sugars, the company hopes to produce up to 20 million gallons of fuel a year.
By mid-2013, Chemtex wants to break ground on a like-sized plant that would employ 67 people in North Carolina. It has set its sights on the little city of Clinton, in the heart of hog country.
David Crouse, a soil scientist at North Carolina State University, says energy grass production and the Tar Heel State are "a logical match" — depending on which grass it is.
Spread across the state's coastal plain are about 100,000 acres of so-called sprayfields, onto which industrial farming operations pump millions of gallons of hog and chicken waste per year. In order to comply with federal clean water regulations for runoff of nutrients such as nitrogen, many of those fields are already planted with energy grasses, chiefly coastal Bermudagrass.
In terms of yield, Arundo far outpaces the competition — up to 20 dry tons per acre, versus 3 to 6 tons for Bermuda. So planting Arundo would require far less land to supply Chemtex's fiber needs. The problem is, the fields' owners also need to worry about absorbing the nitrogen in the manure and the jury is still out as to whether Arundo would be a good fit.
"If it's not, it's not where we need to be on the swine farms," Crouse says.
Brake and his colleagues in Oxford are trying to figure that out.
On a farm a few miles from the biofuels center, a dense patch of what look like anorexic palm trees waves in the light autumn breeze. They tower over the 6-foot-2 farming director.
Brake planted this quarter-acre plot of Arundo donax in 2010. He's been applying fertilizer at four different rates — zero to 120 pounds per acre — to gauge the plants' nutritional needs, as well as their ability to absorb nitrogen.
Even in the tightly packed, red-clay soil, they have thrived. Brake steps into the thicket and struggles to wrap his arms around a clump.
"It's about maybe 3 foot in diameter," he says.
So far, yields from North Carolina test plots have averaged from 5.8 dry tons per acre at the Oxford site to just over 11 tons in the sandy loam soils in which most Chemtex suppliers would be planting, though NCSU soil scientist Ron Gehl notes these are not yet "mature stands."
Brake grabs an Arundo stalk and walks until it's parallel with the ground. Tiny seeds cascade to the ground, clinging to a visitor's wet shoes.
"You afraid of becoming Johnny donax-seed?" he asks with a chuckle. The seeds are sterile, he says reassuringly.
Brake points to a joint on the stalk where a small sprout or "node" peeks out. Continued...