Why Hemp?

Why Hemp?

Energy Farming in America

by Lynn Osburn

A practical answer to America’s farming, energy and environmental crises.

On June 12,1989, President Bush addressed his campaign promises to deal with the pollution problems long facing the United States.

He unveiled an ambitious plan to remove smog from California and the nation’s most populous cities, as well as efforts to reduce acid rain pollution. Bush recommended auto makers be required to make methanol-powered cars for use in nine urban areas plagued by air pollution. Methanol is the simplest form of primary alcohol and is commonly called wood alcohol.

About 6% of contiguous United States land area put into cultivation for biomass could supply all current demands for oil and gas without adding any net carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

Bush called methanol “home-grown energy for America.” He further proposed a 10 million ton reduction in sulfur dioxide emissions from coal-burning power plants; that’s a 50% reduction over present standards. Sulfur dioxide is a major cause of acid rain, which kills 50,000 Americans and 5,000-10,000 Canadians yearly. (Brookhaven National Laboratory 1986)

William Reilly, chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, at a briefing before Bush’s speech, estimated the cost of the plan would be between S14 billion and $19 billion a year after its full implementation at the turn of the century. Bush said, “Too many Americans continue to breathe dirty air, and political paralysis has plagued further progress against air pollution. We’ve seen enough of this stalemate. It’s time to clear the air.” Political paralysis seems to be a dominant trait in Washington in any given decade, but what did he mean by “stalemate?”

The root of this “stalemate” can be found in the concept of world energy resources. The industrial world currently runs on fossil fuel: natural gas, oil, and coal. Fossil fuel resources are non-renewable, being the end product of eons of natural decomposition of Earth’s ancient biomass. Fossil fuels contain sulfur, which is the source of many of the aggravating environmental pollution problems threatening America.

Removing sulfur compounds from fossil fuels is a major expense to the energy producers. Also, burning fossil fuels releases “ancient” carbon dioxide, produced by primeval plant life eons ago, into the atmosphere causing the air we breathe to be over-burdened with CO2 increasing the danger of global warming and the greenhouse effect.

In the late 1800s, the fledgling petroleum industry aggressively competed with the established biomass-based energy industry in a effort to gain control of world energy production and distribution. Fossil fuel producers succeeded in their campaign to dominate energy production by making fuels and chemical feedstocks at lower prices than could be produced from biomass conversion. Now the pendulum is swinging against them.

It is likely that peak oil and gas production in the coterminous United States has been reached. The bulk total production of roughly 80% will be reached by the year 2000. Peak world production will occur about the same year.

The situation for recoverable coal, world wide, is more favorable. Peak production is estimated to happen shortly after the 2100. However, increasing numbers of Americans are unwilling to accept the escalating costs of environmental pollution and destruction associated with coal-fired power plant smokestack emissions and the land destruction resulting from coal mining.

As the energy crop grows it takes in CO2 from the air; when it is burned the CO2 is returned to the air, creating a balanced system.

If the pollution problems inherent with fossil fuel use are solved, the dollars and cents cost of this form of energy will continue to rise due to the dwindling availability of this non-renewable world resource. On the other hand, the dollar cost of energy production from biomass conversion will remain relatively constant because the world biomass resource is renewable on a yearly basis.

The point where the cost of producing energy from fossil fuels exceeds the cost of biomass fuels has been reached. With a few exceptions, energy from fossil fuels will cost the American taxpayer more money than the same amount of energy supplied through biomass conversion.

Biomass as the term used to describe all biologically produced matter. World production of biomass is estimated at 146 billion metric tons a year, mostly wild plant growth. Some farm crops and trees can produce up to 20 metric tons per acre of biomass a year. Types of algae and grasses may produce 50 metric tons per year.

Dried biomass has a heating value of 5000-8000 Btu/lb, with virtually no ash or sulfur produced during combustion. About 6% of contiguous United States land area put into cultivation for biomass could supply all current demands for oil and gas. And this production would not add any net carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. (Environmental Chemistry, Stanley E. Manahan, Willard Grant Press, 1984)

For its Mission Analysis study conducted for the U.S. Department of Energy in 1979, Stanford Research Institute (SRI) chose five types of biomass materials to investigate for energy conversion: woody plants, herbaceous plants (those that do not produce persistent woody material), aquatic plants, and manure. Herbaceous plants were divided into two categories: those with low moisture content and those with high moisture content.

Biomass conversion may be conducted on two broad pathways: chemical decomposition and biological digestion.

Thermochemical decomposition can be utilized for energy conversion of all five categories of biomass materials, but low moisture herbaceous (small grain field residues) and woody (wood industry wastes, and standing vegetation not suitable for lumber) are the most suitable.

Biological processes are essentially microbic digestion and fermentation. High moisture herbaceous plants (vegetables, sugar cane, sugar beet, corn, sorghum, cotton), marine crops and manure are most suitable for biological digestion.

Anaerobic digestion produces high and intermediate Btu gasses. High Btu gas is methane. Intermediate-Btu is methane mixed with carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. Methane can be efficiently converted into methanol.

Fermentation produces ethyl and other alcohols, but this process is too costly in terms of cultivated land use and too inefficient in terms of alcohol production to feasibly supply enough fuel alcohol to power industrial society.

Pyrolysis is the thermochemical process that converts organic materials into usable fuels with high fuel-to-feed ratios, making it the most efficient process for biomass conversion, and the method most capable of competing and eventually replacing non-renewable fossil fuel resources.

The foundation on which this will be achieved is the emerging concept of “energy farming,” wherein farmers grow and harvest crops that are converted into fuels.

Pyrolysis is the technique of applying high heat to organic matter (lignocellulosic materials) in theabsence of air or in reduced air. The process can produce charcoal, condensable organic liquids (pyrolytic fuel oil), non-condensable gasses, acetic acid, acetone, and methanol. The process can be adjusted to favor charcoal, pyrolytic oil, gas, or methanol production with a 95.556 fuel-to-feed efficiency.

Chemical decomposition through pyrolysis is the same technology used to refine crude fossil fuel oil and coal. Biomass conversion by pyrolysis has many environmental and economic advantages over fossil fuels, but coal and oil production dominates because costs are kept lower by various means including government protection.

Pyrolysis has been used since the dawn of civilization. If some means is applied to collect the off-gasses (smoke), the process is called wood distillation. The ancient Egyptians practiced wood distillation by collecting tars and pyroligneous acid for use in their embalming industry.

Pyrolysis of wood to produce charcoal was a major industry in the 1800s, supplying the fuel for the industrial revolution, until it was replaced by coal.

In the late 19th Century and early 20th Century wood distillation was still profitable for producing soluble tar, pitch, creosote oil, chemicals, and non-condensable gasses often used to heat boilers at the facility.

The wood distillation industry declined in the 1930s due to the advent of the petrochemical industry and its lower priced products. However, pyrolysis of wood to produce charcoal for the charcoal briquette market and activated carbon for purification systems is still practiced in the U.S.

The wood distillation industry used pyrolytic reactors in a process called destructive distillation. The operation was carried out in a fractionating column (a tall still) under high heat (from 1000-1700°F). Charcoal was the main fuel product and methanol production was about 1% to 2% of volume or 6 gallons per ton. This traditional method was replaced by the synthetic process developed in 1927.

The synthetic process utilizes a pyrolytic reactor operating as a gasifier by injecting air or pure oxygen into the reactor core to completely burn the biomass to ash. The energy contained in the biomass is released in the gasses formed. After purification the syngas, hydrogen and carbon monoxide in a 2 to 1 ratio, is altered by catalysts under high pressure and heat, to form methanol. This method will produce 100 gallons of methanol per ton of feed material.

Methanol-powered automobiles and reduced emissions from coal-fired power plants can become a reality by using biomass derived fuels. The foundation upon which this will be achieved is the emerging concept of energy farming, wherein farmers grow and harvest crops that are converted into fuels. Energy farming can save American family farms and turn the American heartland into a prosperous source of clean renewable energy production.

Pyrolysis is the most efficient processfor biomass conversion into fuels that can replace all fossil fuel products… When farmers can grow hemp for biomass they will make a profit energy farming.

Universities, government agencies, and private firms have conducted studies looking into the feasibility of growing biomass at low cost to make fuels at affordable prices, but the most promising plant species was never considered because it is prohibited. Instead emphasis has centered around utilizing waste products: agricultural residues after harvest, forestry wastes from the timber and pulp wood industry, and municipal wastes. All of these combined cannot produce enough fuel to satisfy the needs of industry or the American consumer’s automobile. Yet biomass conversion to fuel has been proven economically feasible in laboratory tests and by continuous operation of pilot plants in field tests since 1973.

Farmers should be encouraged to grow energy crops capable of producing 10 tons per acre in 90-120 days. The crop has to be naturally high in cellulose. It must grow in all climactic zones in America. And it should not compete with food production for the most fertile land. It could be grown in rotation with food crops or on marginal land where other crop production isn’t profitable.

At congressional hearings on alternative fuels held in 1978, Dr. George T. Tsao, professor of chemical engineering and food and agricultural engineering, director of laboratory of renewable resources, Purdue University, said $30 per ton for biomass delivered to the fuel conversion plant is an adequate base price for the energy farmer. The price of $30/ton has also been suggested by other researchers.

Both Dr. Serge Gratch, director chemical sciences laboratory, Ford Motor Co. and Dr. Joseph M. Colucci, director fuels and lubricants General Motors Research Laboratories testified their companies were willing, especially Ford, to make cars that would run on methanol fuel. The scientists said it would take several years to tool up factories to make methanol powered autos. They said industry could solve the problems associated with methanol as fuel. And it would take about the same amount of time for the energy industry to build methanol production facilities.

So why don’t we have methanol at the filling station? The scientists said the problem was government certification under the Clean Air Act required automobile manufacturers meet standards set by the EPA based on fuels available on a national level. Since methanol fuel standards had not been set, the car makers couldn’t make the new fleet until the methanol fuel was available at the pump. This catch-22 situation continues today. Government is unwilling to subsidize pilot energy farms and biomass refinery construction because fossil fuel producers control the energy industry.

Hemp is the only biomass resource capable of making America energy independent. The government suspended marijuana prohibition during WWII. It’s time to do it again.

The way to end this political stalemate is to start literally from the ground up. When farmers can grow hemp for biomass they will make a profit energy farming. Then it will not take long to get 6% of continental American land mass into cultivation for biomass fuels — enough to replace our economy’s dependence on fossil fuels. And as the energy crop grows it takes in CO2 from the air; when it is burned the CO2 is returned to the air, creating a balanced system. We will no longer be increasing the CO2 content in the atmosphere. The threat of global greenhouse warming and adverse climatic change will diminish.

This energy crop can be harvested with equipment readily available. It can be “cubed” by modifying hay cubing equipment. This method condenses the bulk, reducing trucking costs from the field to the pyrolysis facility.

Sixty-eight percent of the energy in the raw biomass is contained in the charcoal and fuel oils made at the facility. The charcoal has the same heating value in Btu as coal, with virtually no sulfur to pollute the atmosphere. The pyrolytic fuel oil has similar properties to no. 2 and no. 6 fuel oil. The remaining energy is in noncondensible gases that are used to co-generate steam and electricity.

To keep costs down pyrolysis reactors need to be located within a 50 mile radius from the energy farms. This necessity will bring life back to our small towns by providing jobs locally. The pyrolysis facilities will run three shifts a day.

Charcoal and fuel oil can be “exported” from the rural small town in the agricultural community to the large metropolitan areas to fuel the giant power plants generating electricity. When these utility companies use charcoal instead of coal, the problems of acid rain will begin to disappear.

The charcoal can be transported economically by rail to all urban area power plants. The fuel oil can be transported economically by truck creating more jobs for Americans.

When this energy system is on line producing a steady supply of fuel for utility companies, it will have established itself in commerce. Then it will be more feasible to build the complex syngas systems to produce methanol from biomass, or make synthetic gasoline from methanol by adding the Mobil Co. process equipment to the gasifier.

To accomplish this goal of clean energy independence in America we must demand an end to hemp prohibition, so American farmers can grow this energy crop. Our government foolishly outlawed it in 1938.

Hemp is the world’s most versatile plant. It can yield 10 tons per acre in four months. Hemp contains 80% cellulose; wood produces 60% cellulose. Hemp is drought resistant making it an ideal crop in the dry western regions of the country.

Hemp is the only biomass resource capable of making America energy independent. Remember that in 10 years, by the year 2000, America will have exhausted 80% of her petroleum reserves. Will we then go to war with the Arabs for the privilege of driving our cars; will we stripmine our land for coal and poison the air we breathe to drive our autos an additional 100 years; will we raze our forests for our energy needs?

During the Second World War, the federal government faced a real economic emergency when our supply of hemp was cut off by the Japanese. The federal government responded to the emergency by suspending marijuana prohibition. Patriotic American farmers were encouraged to apply for a license to grow hemp. They responded enthusiastically and grew 375,000 acres of hemp in 1943.

The argument against undertaking this massive hemp production effort today does not hold up to scrutiny.

Hemp grown for biomass makes very poor grade marijuana. The 20 to 40 million Americans who smoke marijuana would loath to smoke hemp grown for biomass, so no one could make a dime selling a farmers hemp biomass crop as marijuana.

It is time for the federal government to once again respond to our current economic emergency by utilizing the same procedure used in WWII to permit our farmers to grow American hemp so this mighty nation can once again become energy independent and smog free.

References:

1. U.S. Energy Atlas, David J. Cuff & William J. Young, Free Press/McMillan Publishing Co., NY, 1980
2. Progress in Biomass Conversion Vol. 1, Kyosti V. Sartanen & David Tillmall editors, Academic Press, NY, 1979
3. Brown’s Second Alcohol Fuel Cookbook, Michael H. Brown (Senate hearing transcripts)
4. Environmental Chemistry, (4th edition), Stanley E. Manahan, P.W.S. Publishers, Boston, MA, 1979
5. Hemp for Victory, U.S. government documentary film, USDA 1942-43

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Response to Ed Rosenthal’s “Hemp Realities”

By Lynn Osburn 1995

A chapter excerpted from Ed Rosenthal’s new book HEMP TODAY appeared in High Times April 1995. Ed’s negative critical assessment of hemp as a biofuels resource and his rhetorical attack on my perceptive and cognitive abilities appeared in the chapter he wrote, titled “Hemp Realities.” The thrust of Ed’s arguments against hemp biofuels resources and hemp energy farming are shallow and misleading; his personal attack on Jack Herer and myself is completely uncalled for.

I happen to disagree with Ed on a multitude of cannabis cultivation issues including biomass yields per acre and hemp for energy farming. His 3.5 tons per acre is at the extreme low end of the yields that have been reported; eighteen tons per acre is at the high end.

He has made some factual errors in reference to my article “Energy Farming in America,” originally published in the April 1990 issue of High Times magazine. He paraphrases, “Herer and Osburn claim it would take 6% of the land mass of the USA to supply its energy needs.”

What I really wrote was: “About 6% of contiguous United States land area put into cultivation for biomass could supply all current demands for oil and gas.” I cited the textbook, ENVIRONMENTAL CHEMISTRY by Stanley E. Manahan, University of Missouri. Professor Manahan actually wrote on page 439 of the 3rd edition under the heading Energy from Photosynthesis, “Meeting US demands for oil and gas would require that about 6% of the land area of the coterminous 48 states be cultivated intensively for energy production.”

Rosenthal then states, “If hemp were to be grown on 6% of the land, it means it would be grown on 28% of the arable land, each piece of arable land would have to grow hemp more often than every four years.” Ed never does say what he meant by arable land, but he did invent a new cannabis cultivation fable with his four year rotation plan.

Calculations regarding US surface acreage based on statistics derived from the 1994 UNIVERSAL ALMANAC1 reveal that rural cropland makes up about 22% of US acreage. Rural pastureland is almost 7% of US acreage, an area slightly larger than necessary to produce enough biofuels to end US dependence on oil and gas.

1. The total surface area of the contiguous (coterminous i.e. connected 48 states) United States is 1,937,726,000 acres. Federal land area is 404,069,000 acres. Non federal land area is divided into categories: developed land area is 77,305,000 acres; rural cropland covers 422,416,000 acres; rural pastureland utilizes 129,021,000 acres, rural rangeland comprises 401,658,000 acres; and rural forestland accounts for 393,904,000 acres. —THE UNIVERSAL ALMANAC 1994, edited by John W. Wright

I am not suggesting that we plant hemp on all US pastureland though hemp will grow quite well on it. Raising livestock on pastures is incredibly inefficient land use, but we make it profitable anyway because a good many of us enjoy eating meat. When we desire fresh air and a stable ecosystem in a clean environment as much as we enjoy eating meat we will make energy farming more than profitable.

Ed seems to believe that the concept of energy farming is my invention. It’s not; I have simply reported on the published scientific literature available. Rosenthal uses the terms arable and marginal in his discussion of land fertility. These terms are too general, that’s why the Soil Conservation Service developed the system described below.

Several estimates of land availability for energy farming reported in “The Silvicultural Energy Farm in Perspective” by Jean-Francois Henry in PROGRESS IN BIOMASS CONVERSION VOL. I, relied on a system of land classification developed by the Soil Conservation Service (USDA, 1967). The system characterizes soils by a division into eight classes. The primary uses of land classes I through IV are agricultural, pasture, and tree crops; classes V and VI are forestry, range, watershed, and some agriculture. Classes VII and VIII are only suitable for forestry, range, recreation, and wildlife habitat; they are too steep for energy farming.

The estimated amount of land available for energy farming using this system ranges from a conservative low of 32 million acres to a high of 100 million acres. The largest value is close to the 6% figure (116 million acres) required by Professor Manahan’s projections. It was the result of work done by Inter Technology in 1975.2

2. PROGRESS IN BIOMASS CONVERSION VOL I, page 243.

Currently in the USA hemp farming is the number one cash crop in several states with total US yearly production estimates running into the billions of dollars in value. The vast majority of this hemp is grown on land classes VII and VIII — land only suitable for forestry, range, recreation, and wildlife habitat; land too steep for energy farming. Of course only the most valuable hemp is cultivated under these harsh wilderness conditions. Ganga (sinsemilla) is literally worth its weight in gold, and the crop of gold it produces is grown on land classed by the government as unsuitable for agriculture.

On land suitable for agriculture hemp cultivated for the production of fiber, cut before the seeds are formed and retted on the land where is has been grown, tends to improve rather than injure the soil. It improves its physical condition, destroys weeds, and does not exhaust its fertility. Hemp will grow well in a fertile soil after any crop, and leaves the land in good condition for any succeeding crop.3

3. Hemp, Lyster H. Dewey, Botanist in Charge of Fiber-Plant Investigations, Bureau of Plant Industry, YEARBOOK OF THE UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE 1913, page 321.

Very few of the common weeds troublesome on the farm can survive the dense shade of a good crop of hemp. A good dense crop 6 feet or more in height will leave the ground practically free from weeds at the time of harvest. And hemp is remarkably free from diseases caused by fungi.4 Hemp prefers plenty of moisture but will tolerate drought after its first six weeks of growth. Hemp “will endure heavy rains or even a flood of short duration.”5

4. Hemp, Lyster H. Dewey, Botanist in Charge of Fiber-Plant Investigations, Bureau of Plant Industry, YEARBOOK OF THE UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE 1913, page 309.

5. Hemp, Lyster H. Dewey, Botanist in Charge of Fiber-Plant Investigations, Bureau of Plant Industry, YEARBOOK OF THE UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE 1913, page 306.

Hemp attains in four months a height of 6 to 12 feet and produces a larger amount of dry vegetable matter than any other crop in temperate climates. A commercial fertilizer containing about 6% of available phosphoric acid, 12% of actual potash, and 4% nitrogen would be a good fertilizer for hemp.6 This level of nutrient requirement is modest for a commercial agriculture product.

6. Hemp, Lyster H. Dewey, Botanist in Charge of Fiber-Plant Investigations, Bureau of Plant Industry, YEARBOOK OF THE UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE 1913, page 309-311.

Hemp can absorb and metabolize greater nutrient concentrations than necessary for luxurious growth, leading to another fable, that cannabis requires large amounts of macro nutrients, especially nitrogen. Zealous pot farmers have reported ganga yields using much higher NPK concentrations; many have inadvertently selectively bred their marijuana strains to be heavy feeders. However, Luigi Castellini, director of the Centro Difesa Canapa (the Italian hemp industry) in 1961 said on page nine in CIBA REVIEW that excess nitrogen makes “plants evolve too fast, that is the parenchyma develops to the detriment of the supporting structural tissues and, therefore, of the fibre strands. The results are low strength and reduced resistance to high winds and hail storms. At the same time, the susceptibility of the plants to disease is increased. The fibres are thin, weak, and pale.” Hemp does not require the level of chemical applications necessary for other commercial crops like cotton, corn, and vegetables; nor does hemp need as much irrigation. These production cost savings added to the high biomass yields make hemp the most viable candidate crop for energy farming.

Rosenthal continues on to develop the notion that biomass conversion is a profitless venture stating “the overwhelming majority of biomass fuel plants have had only marginal economic success.” He goes on to mention a cogeneration facility in the Central Valley that uses orchard tree trimmings as its primary fuel source. That power plant is near Delano, about a two hour drive from my home. It is making a profit selling electricity. The only problem is securing enough orchard trimmings and field waste to keep the biomass cogenerator at full production. That facility has been featured in several Central Valley newspaper articles detailing its successful and profitable operation.

Delano is in Kern County, the largest petroleum producing county in California. Several power companies have set up cogenerator turbines directly in the oil fields there to save fuel transportation costs. Pipelines go directly from the well pumps to the steam boilers. The Delano biomass conversion plant must produce electricity at a price competitive with those large oil-field cogenerators.

Of course an energy farmer would not make as much money per acre as fiber, seed, or ganja farmers, but the US is the largest energy consumer in the world. We import one third of our energy and the price of fuel is not going down. There is every likelihood that hemp fiber, seed, and ganja production would eventually glut the market lowering prices if hemp were legal to produce. On the other hand market demand for biofuels can only increase.

It is ludicrous to suggest that hemp for bio-fuels production is unprofitable because we, as a society, cannot make a profit converting our trash into fuel. Several biofuels companies have attempted to set up pilot plants to convert refuse-derived fuel (RDF) and municipal solid wastes (MSW) into boiler fuel to power steam cogenerators producing electricity. In the 1970s there were no less than 32 municipal and private operations in 20 states recovering fuels from municipal wastes.7

7. “A Survey of US and European Practices for Recovering Energy from Municipal Waste,” James G. Albert, Harvey Alter, in PROGRESS IN BIOMASS CONVERSION VOL. I, Appendix, Table I, p. 206-211.

“Resource recovery advocates have begun to point out that with the expected increase in energy value and the expected increase in capital cost of new plant and equipment, an investment made now in energy recovery plant and equipment appears to have an interesting financial future. An investment, once made, is paid back in level installments. Operating costs are shown increasing at 6% per year. Revenues from energy sales are depicted increasing at 9% per year. The tipping fee, or alternate disposal cost, is shown increasing at 6% per year. In general, the resource recovery tipping fee has an upper boundary approximating the cost of the least expensive alternative method of disposal, usually landfill. On this basis, the breakeven point is about five years; net plant costs on that particular year equal alternative disposal costs. From then on, recovery is a less expensive option than alternative disposal approaches. A community would be ahead overall by about the eighth year.”8

8. “A Survey of US and European Practices for Recovering Energy from Municipal Waste,” James G. Albert, Harvey Alter, in PROGRESS IN BIOMASS CONVERSION VOL. I, p. 190-192.

That was the bright future about 20 years ago that promised a sustainable solution to the burgeoning problem of municipal waste disposal. Reaganomics reduced availability for the five-year start-up funding, spurred along by heavy lobbying from the tipping industry — the landfill tycoons. The failure to inaugurate energy recovery from municipal wastes had nothing to do with the economic viability of the processes. No! it was killed by political intrigue.

Hemp is not an unwanted waste material. It is a versatile low entropy resource produced by agriculture. The endproducts of hemp refinement, including the production of biofuels, contain more than enough economic value to offset the cost of production. There is no hemp being grown for fiber, food, or fuel in America because the spiritually elevating medicinally therapeutic hemp flowers and leaves have been outlawed!

For the sake of avoiding further misunderstanding: I have never proposed that hempseed oil should be used for fuel. I have said that it will work as a diesel fuel, any vegetable oil will. I have said hempseed oil is more valuable as a source of essential fatty acid nutrition and as a feedstock for making paints and varnishes than as a diesel fuel. I have said in numerous public speeches that the least valuable hemp product is fuel biomass, and that hemp grown for fuel would also require far less handling making it the cheapest type of hemp crop to produce.
“Energy Farming”

(Chapter from ECO-HEMP 1994 Lynn Osburn)

The idea grew out of studies concerned with increasing wood fiber yield to meet projected future demands. High yields were achieved on intensively managed experimental plots. Fast growing deciduous tree species were farmed relying on high planting densities, short rotation, and multiple harvests from a single planting. From this emerged the concept of growing trees exclusively for their fuel/feedstock value on energy farms.

Land preparation, soil-species relationships, farm management intensity, and harvesting were found to be interrelated and critical for successful energy farming. Intensive management included site preparation, planting stock, weed control, irrigation, fertilization, and harvesting. The input of energy at these levels of management were weighed against the output of energy value in the dried biomass harvested.

The fields were prepared the same as for most agriculture crops. This included clearing the land of existing vegetation by slashing, raking, burning, plowing, and disking. Planting tree stock well adapted to the site soil and climate conditions was a prerequisite necessity for a highly productive farm. It was suggested the use of clones would allow for mass production of genotypes, and well tested clones and hybrids could reduce the incidence of disease infestation in tree farms.9

9. “The Silvacultural Energy Farm in Perspective,” Jean-Francois Henry in PROGRESS IN BIOMASS CONVERSION VOLUME I, Kyosti V. Sarkanen & David A. Tillman editors, Academic Press, NY, p. 218.

Weed control was also a necessity for attaining high yields especially during the early growth years. Frequent disking gave the best results. Another approach was to plant leguminous cover crops between the tree rows to inhibit weed growth and provide some nitrogen.

Irrigation was considered indispensable during the first few years of plantation growth even in areas where the annual rainfall is 25 inches or more. The increase in yield from irrigation is influenced by various site specific factors including nutrient availability, soil quality, and length of the growing season.

Short rotations between harvests of trees (every 5-10 years as opposed to every 30-100 years in conventional forestry) on energy farms and intensive biomass removal could result in soil depletion and ultimately degradation of the land. Young trees contain more nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium than older mature trees. Nitrogen deficiencies were demonstrated in intensive cultures of cottonwood and sycamore. Deficiency problems were solved by adding chemical fertilizers or planting nitrogen fixing cover crops. Another method suggested was to fertilize the energy farm crop with sewage wastewater.

With management practices in place species selection is the most critical factor for optimum biomass production. Desirable characteristics of candidate species include: rapid juvenile growth, adaptability to varying site conditions, easiness to establish and regenerate, and resistance to insect and fungal diseases.10

10. “The Silvacultural Energy Farm in Perspective,” Jean-Francois Henry in PROGRESS IN BIOMASS CONVERSION VOLUME I, Kyosti V. Sarkanen & David A. Tillman editors, Academic Press, NY, p. 221.

Sycamore and populus hybrids were the most extensively tested. The highest mean annual biomass production for sycamore was 3.8 dry tons per acre-year (total yield divided by the number of years between harvests) when harvested every six years with a planting density of 1 x 4 feet. The best populus hybrid produced 6.8 dry ton/acre-year when harvested on four year rotations with a planting density of 1 x 1 foot.11

11. “The Silvacultural Energy Farm in Perspective,” Jean-Francois Henry in PROGRESS IN BIOMASS CONVERSION VOLUME I, Kyosti V. Sarkanen & David A. Tillman editors, Academic Press, NY, p. 224.

Operation and maintenance costs accounted for about 65% to 75% of total production expenses. Fertilizer was the single highest expense consuming more than 26% of total costs, followed by irrigation at more than 12%. Total production expenses ranged from $20 to $30 per dry ton. Total energy output of the biomass was about 15 times greater than the energy input.12

12. “The Silvacultural Energy Farm in Perspective,” Jean-Francois Henry in PROGRESS IN BIOMASS CONVERSION VOLUME I, Kyosti V. Sarkanen & David A. Tillman editors, Academic Press, NY, p. 232, 234, 240.

Using the silvaculture energy farm as a model about 42 million acres of land (about 2% of United States total land area) would have to be reserved for tree farming to produce 5 quads (one quadrillion = 10E15 BTUs) of wood fuel annually at an average of 7 dry tons per acre-year. Five quads is about 6% of total energy consumption for the US in 1991.

Several researchers have made estimates of the land available for silvaculture energy farming. They adopted a general criteria of land suitability: at least 25 inches of rain a year, with arable land and slope equal to or less than 30%. They used a system of land classification developed by the USDA Soil Conservation Service. The system characterizes soils by a division into eight classes. The primary uses of land classes I through IV are agriculture, pasture, and tree crops; classes V and VI are forestry, range, watershed, and some agriculture. Classes VII and VIII are only suitable for forestry, range, recreation, and wildlife habitat; they are too steep for energy farming.

The estimated amount of land available for silvaculture using this system ranges from a conservative low of 32 million acres to highs of 75 and 100 million acres. The largest annual energy production estimated from these acreages is 15 quads annually.

Large scale energy farming will produce some social benefits. A farm producing about 250,000 dry tons annually will generate 150 permanent and temporary jobs; that’s about 35,000 jobs per quad of energy produced. This figure is 14% greater than the estimated job increase expected from the extraction of forest residues for fuel use.

“Other social impacts will result from the installation of energy farms within a rural area: increase in the market value of land, increase in tax revenue, stimulation of local economy, potential influx of labor and increased need for services, aggregation of land parcels, uniformity of use and management of forest, pasture, and cropland, increased traffic on rural roads, changes in aesthetic and recreational value of the land, and others. None of the potential negative social impacts associated with energy farming appear strong enough to prevent the implementation of this new technology.” 13

13. “The Silvacultural Energy Farm in Perspective,” Jean-Francois Henry in PROGRESS IN BIOMASS CONVERSION VOLUME I, Kyosti V. Sarkanen & David A. Tillman editors, Academic Press, NY, p. 242.

A 1984 report by the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute, stated, referring to clean renewable energy alternatives, “only biomass energy holds promise to provide liquid fuels for transportation in the near future.”14

14. “Hawaii’s Abundant Renewable Resources,” Richard Neill, State Department of Planning and Economic Development and Hawaii Natural Energy Institute program coordinator, Proceedings of the International Symposium on Hydrogen Produced From Renewable Energy, Honolulu, May 24-25, 1984, page 260.

The Hawaii Natural Energy Institute worked with the University’s Department of Agricultural Engineering to determine the most suitable plants and sites for growing methanol.

Researchers began work in 1978 to demonstrate the commercial viability of biomass energy plantations and methanol-from-biomass fuel production, under a Department of Energy subcontract titled “Hawaii Integrated Biofuels Research Program.” Several types of eucalyptus trees and indigenous nitrogen fixing trees were studied, as well as sugar cane and other napier grasses.

Tree farming (sylvaculture) presented several problems and produced disappointing yields. Production costs were high. Trees must be transplanted as clones or selected vigorous seedlings. Eucalyptus proved to be a heavy nitrogen feeder, which is one the reasons nitrogen fixing acacias and other trees were also experimented with. (Run off from the nitrogen fertilized pineapple fields is already killing coral reef ecosystems with creeping eutropism by fostering algae growth that smothers the coral.)

Weed control is essential and adds to the cost of production. The tree crop takes four to seven years to be ready for harvest. In addition to cultivating expenses, “harvesting accounts for almost two-thirds of Eucalyptus feedstock cost,” according to the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute. Not only is chipping wood expensive, the noise pollution chipping creates presents problems, especially on a small island.

One species of nitrogen fixing tree (Leucaena leucephala) yielded 15 dry tons per acre the first year and nearly 40 tons from regrowth the second year. The average yield of this species was similar to that of eucalyptus, between 10-20 dry tons/acre-year. Due to concern over the intense competition for land usage on the island, Leucaena was experimentally grown on marginal agriculture land “up country” on the slopes of Haleakala, Maui. The yields in these colder micro-climates were dismal.

Compare this to hemp. Hemp is planted inexpensively from seed sown directly in the field; hemp actually improves the soil in which it is grown, without chemical fertilizers; hemp chokes out weeds by virtue of its fast dense growth; hemp biomass harvesters (modified hay cubers) are cheaper to operate and are much quieter than wood chippers. And according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, over a twenty year period one acre planted in hemp produces as much pulp as 4.1 acres of trees.15

15. Lyster H. Dewey, Jason L. Merrill, “Hemp Hurds As Papermaking Material,” USDA Bulletin No. 404, 1916.

The grasses studied out produced sylvaculture, The Integrated Biofuels contract also supports bio-fuels research by the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association. They are breeding low sugar “energy” cane that produces more biomass. Yields average between 20-30 dry tons per acre per year. The Hawaiian Natural Energy Institute estimated that “an energy-only sugarcane agricultural operation in an unirrigated site would have to yield 26 tons per acre per year of fiber to equal the cost of production,” given the 1987 cost of oil, the year the estimate was made.16

16. “Comparative Yield Trials with Tree and Grass Energy Crops in Hawaii: A preliminary Report on Current Research,” R.V. Osgood and N.S. Dudley, Second Pacific Biofuels Workshop, Hawaii Natural Energy Institute, Apr. 22-24, 1987, page 96.

Sugarcane is a high moisture herbaceous plant. It is most suitable for fermentation into ethanol for use as a renewable feed-stock for the chemical industry. (Ethanol cannot compete economically with methanol as a source for commercial transportation biofuel.) High moisture plants can be fermented to produce methane, also used for generating electricity.

In fact, Hawaiian sugar factories supplied most of the electrical power on all the major islands neighboring Ohau during the first half of the century. They burned baggase, the hydrocarbon rich sugar cane waste, in steam co-generators. Today every sugar company operating in Hawaii has an electricity production contract with one of the four Hawaiian public utility generating companies. The sugar companies supply ten percent of all electricity generated in Hawaii. In some counties up to 60% of the electricity originates from sugar plantations.

However, because the goal of their energy production is limited to steam for electricity, sugar factories waste much of the potential biomass energy and release uncombusted particles that pollute the atmosphere. On the other hand, biomass-to-methanol production is clean and efficient: most of the gasses released during biomass combustion are collected for fuel.

The added cost of the extra drying needed for crops such as sugar cane, corn, and napier grasses makes these high moisture plants an inefficient source for growing methanol.

The Institute’s 1990 report concluded that thermochemical (pyrolytic) production of methanol from biomass is the most economical alternative for transportation fuel. They also confirmed Stanford Research Institute’s conclusion from the late seventies that woody or low moisture herbaceous plants are the most efficient biomass resource for thermochemical conversion into liquid fuels such as methanol.

It is the cellulose in low moisture herbaceous and woody plants that provides the hydrocarbons necessary for fuel production. Hemp stalks are over 75% cellulose.17 Hemp is both a low moisture herbaceous and a woody plant.

17. “Physical and Chemical Characteristics of Hemp Stalks and Seed Flax Straw,” by E.R. Schafer and F.A. Simmonds, presented before the Division of Cellulose Chemistry at the 78th meeting of the American Chemical Society, September, 1929; reprinted in Paper Trade Journal May 15, 1930, p. 70.

Hawaii Natural Energy Institute projected a cost of $280 million to build a facility capable of converting 7000 tons of biomass per day into 760 million liters per year (MLPY) of methanol. With a total investment of $335 million, the facility could more than double methanol production to 1700 MLPY from the same amount of biomass.18

18. “Thermochemical Production of Methanol from Biomass in Hawaii,” V.D. Phillps, C.M. Knonshita, D.R. Neill, & P.K. Takahashi, Hawaii Integrated Biofuels Research Program, Phase II, Final Report, Hawaii Natural Energy Institute, Aug. 1990, page 169.

Approximately 3300 MLPY of methanol can replace the 1200 MLPY of gasoline and the 640 MLPY of diesel fuel consumed in Hawaii today. And bio-methanol can be produced at a price competitive with regular low lead gasoline on a cost per mile basis.19

19. “The California Methanol Program: Commercial Demonstration and Practical Challenge,” Kenneth Smith and Peter Ward, Calif. Energy Commission, Second Pacific Biofuels Workshop, Hawaii Natural Energy Institute, Apr. 22-24, 1987, page 206. (Because gasoline production costs more per gallon than methanol, but gasoline has an energy equivalent of 1.5 gallons of methanol, cost per mile is the only meaningful price comparison.)

Hemp yields an average of nine dry tons per acre per year.20

20. Dewey & Merrill, “Hemp Hurds As Papermaking Material,” U.S.D.A. Bulletin No. 404, 1916, page 3 states: “The yield of hemp fiber varies from 400 to 2,500 pounds per acre, averaging 1,000 pounds under favorable conditions. The weight of hurds is about five times that of the fiber, or somewhat greater from hemp grown on peaty soils.”

Lyster H. Dewey, Botanist in Charge of Fiber-Plant Investigations, Bureau of Plant Industry, YEARBOOK OF THE UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE 1913, page 310, states the relative proportions of the hemp plant are: stems 60%, leaves 30%, and roots 10%. So an acre of hemp that yields 1 ton of fiber also produces 5 tons of hurds, and 3 tons of leaves, or 9 tons of dry biomass.

This yield could be even greater in warm humid climates like the deep south from Florida to southern Texas; warm dry climates like the southern portions of New Mexico, Arizona, and California; or tropical climates like Hawaii and Puerto Rico. In these climates hemp can produce two or three crops per year. (Hemp is mature and ready to harvest 90-120 days after planting. Sugarcane takes 18 months to mature.) Therefore, using the University of Hawaii bio-methanol facility production and cost estimates: 95,000 acres planted in hemp will supply a facility capable of producing 1700 MLPY (449 Million Gallons Per Year) of methanol,21 with the total investment in building the facility at $335 million.

21. The University of Hawaii Natural Energy Institute states that a facility producing 1700 MLPY (440 million gallons per year) or methanol requires 7000 tons per day of biomass feedstock. If each acre of hemp yields 9 tons per harvest, the 3 harvests per year possible in Hawaii and Puerto Rico will produce 27 oven dry tons per acre. 7000 x 365 days = 2,555,000 tons per year. Thus the number of acres needed to supply hemp for the bio-methanol facility equals 2,555,000 divided by 27 (tons per acre per year) = 94,630. Rounded off, 95,000 acres are needed to supply 7000 tons of biomass per day that will produce 1700 MLPY (449 million gallons per year) of methanol.

At congressional hearings on alternative fuels held in 1978, Dr. George T. Tsao, professor of chemical engineering and food and agricultural engineering, director of laboratory of renewable resources, Purdue University, said $30 per ton of biomass delivered to the fuel conversion plant is an adequate base price for the energy farmer. The price of $30/ton has been suggested by other researchers.22

22. BROWN’S SECOND ALCOHOL FUEL COOKBOOK, Michael H. Brown, TAB Books Inc., Pa., 1981, page 212.

Silvaculture energy farming has failed to develop into a competitive energy industry because the external energy input costs especially fossil fuels powering machinery to weed, irrigate, and harvest; chemical fertilizers and pesticides; and skilled human labor for clone generation and maintenance are equal to or exceed the competitive selling price of the wood biomass crop. The failure here resides in the fact that energy farming is required to subsidize the fossil fuel industry before cheaper biofuels are available to cut the cost of fuel consumption on the silvaculture energy farm. Simply put, the silvaculture energy farm biomass fuels industry must use expensive petro-fuels to grow bio-fuels selling at the same price as fossil fuels — a real catch-22. Silvaculture has been successful at producing higher value cordwood for home heating, especially eucalyptus plantations in milder temperate climates like California.

Hemp plantations have routinely produced intensive biomass yields throughout the world throughout recorded history. Hemp is not plagued by the economic and environmental pitfalls associated with other energy farming candidate crops. A hemp energy farm would require far less use of fossil fuels (more efficient harvesting equipment, no need for mechanical weeding, little of no chemical fertilizers, no pesticides, no greenhouse horticulture for clone generation and maintenance, etc.) to produce a biomass crop.

In June 1992, the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress prepared a report for Congress titled, “Growing Marihuana (Hemp) for Fiber: Pros and Cons,” by Jean M. Rawson, Analyst in Agricultural Policy Environment and Natural Resources Policy Division.

Rawson states under the heading, The Current Issue, “Recent interest in making hemp once again a legal commodity has largely been spurred by the efforts of one promoter, Jack Herer, who released an updated version of his book, HEMP AND THE MARIJUANA CONSPIRACY: THE EMPEROR WEARS NO CLOTHES, in 1990. The author argues that if hemp were adopted as a source of paper, cloth, and cordage; charcoal, methanol, and diesel fuel; edible and industrial oils, and protein for livestock and poultry (oilseed cake and hempseed), it could slow erosion, reduce pesticide usage, save the rainforests, preserve the ozone layer, and forestall global warming. On a less ambitious scale, other supporters of hemp legalization argue that as hemp once was a valuable fiber crop, it could be again. Viewed this way, its economic potential would be similar to that of any alternative crop.”

Under the heading, Hemp’s environmental impacts Rawson states, “The argument that hemp would be an environmentally benign crop is difficult to evaluate. It does appear, however, that weeds, insects, and diseases do not pose a great threat to hemp, which might give it some advantages over standard commercial crops grown under conventional practices.”

Rawson concludes, “Other possible benefits of commercial hemp cultivation, such as having a domestic source of hard fiber or an environmentally superior source of biomass fuel, are not very compelling under current U.S. policies that favor low-cost synthetic fibers both foreign and domestic It could be argued that research into hemp’s many potential uses has strategic value. This argument has been used for more than 20 years to sustain research into developing a domestic source of rubber from the guayule plant for use in military aircraft tires.

“The factor that currently makes consideration of hemp cultivation for fiber a moot point is the Government’s strong antidrug policy. In addition to existing efforts, the Drug Enforcement Agency in 1990 launched the Domestic Cannabis Eradication and Suppression Program, which actively pursues the eradication of both potent cultivated plants and wild stands of low-potency marihuana in all 50 States.”

Notes:

1. The total surface area of the contiguous (coterminous i.e. connected 48 states) United States is 1,937,726,000 acres. Federal land area is 404,069,000 acres. Non federal land area is divided into categories: developed land area is 77,305,000 acres; rural cropland covers 422,416,000 acres; rural pastureland utilizes 129,021,000 acres, rural rangeland comprises 401,658,000 acres; and rural forestland accounts for 393,904,000 acres. —THE UNIVERSAL ALMANAC 1994, edited by John W. Wright

2. PROGRESS IN BIOMASS CONVERSION VOL I, page 243.

3. Hemp, Lyster H. Dewey, Botanist in Charge of Fiber-Plant Investigations, Bureau of Plant Industry, YEARBOOK OF THE UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE 1913, page 321.

4. Hemp, Lyster H. Dewey, Botanist in Charge of Fiber-Plant Investigations, Bureau of Plant Industry, YEARBOOK OF THE UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE 1913, page 309.

5. Hemp, Lyster H. Dewey, Botanist in Charge of Fiber-Plant Investigations, Bureau of Plant Industry, YEARBOOK OF THE UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE 1913, page 306.

6. Hemp, Lyster H. Dewey, Botanist in Charge of Fiber-Plant Investigations, Bureau of Plant Industry, YEARBOOK OF THE UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE 1913, page 309-311.

7. “A Survey of US and European Practices for Recovering Energy from Municipal Waste,” James G. Albert, Harvey Alter, in PROGRESS IN BIOMASS CONVERSION VOL. I, Appendix, Table I, p. 206-211.

8. “A Survey of US and European Practices for Recovering Energy from Municipal Waste,” James G. Albert, Harvey Alter, in PROGRESS IN BIOMASS CONVERSION VOL. I, p. 190-192.

9. “The Silvacultural Energy Farm in Perspective,” Jean-Francois Henry in PROGRESS IN BIOMASS CONVERSION VOLUME I, Kyosti V. Sarkanen & David A. Tillman editors, Academic Press, NY, p. 218.

10. “The Silvacultural Energy Farm in Perspective,” Jean-Francois Henry in PROGRESS IN BIOMASS CONVERSION VOLUME I, Kyosti V. Sarkanen & David A. Tillman editors, Academic Press, NY, p. 221.

11. “The Silvacultural Energy Farm in Perspective,” Jean-Francois Henry in PROGRESS IN BIOMASS CONVERSION VOLUME I, Kyosti V. Sarkanen & David A. Tillman editors, Academic Press, NY, p. 224.

12. “The Silvacultural Energy Farm in Perspective,” Jean-Francois Henry in PROGRESS IN BIOMASS CONVERSION VOLUME I, Kyosti V. Sarkanen & David A. Tillman editors, Academic Press, NY, p. 232, 234, 240.

13. “The Silvacultural Energy Farm in Perspective,” Jean-Francois Henry in PROGRESS IN BIOMASS CONVERSION VOLUME I, Kyosti V. Sarkanen & David A. Tillman editors, Academic Press, NY, p. 242.

14. “Hawaii’s Abundant Renewable Resources,” Richard Neill, State Department of Planning and Economic Development and Hawaii Natural Energy Institute program coordinator, Proceedings of the International Symposium on Hydrogen Produced From Renewable Energy, Honolulu, May 24-25, 1984, page 260.

15. Lyster H. Dewey, Jason L. Merrill, “Hemp Hurds As Papermaking Material,” USDA Bulletin No. 404, 1916.

16. “Comparative Yield Trials with Tree and Grass Energy Crops in Hawaii: A preliminary Report on Current Research,” R.V. Osgood and N.S. Dudley, Second Pacific Biofuels Workshop, Hawaii Natural Energy Institute, Apr. 22-24, 1987, page 96.

17. “Physical and Chemical Characteristics of Hemp Stalks and Seed Flax Straw,” by E.R. Schafer and F.A. Simmonds, presented before the Division of Cellulose Chemistry at the 78th meeting of the American Chemical Society, September, 1929; reprinted in Paper Trade Journal May 15, 1930, p. 70.

18. “Thermochemical Production of Methanol from Biomass in Hawaii,” V.D. Phillps, C.M. Knonshita, D.R. Neill, & P.K. Takahashi, Hawaii Integrated Biofuels Research Program, Phase II, Final Report, Hawaii Natural Energy Institute, Aug. 1990, page 169.

19. “The California Methanol Program: Commercial Demonstration and Practical Challenge,” Kenneth Smith and Peter Ward, Calif. Energy Commission, Second Pacific Biofuels Workshop, Hawaii Natural Energy Institute, Apr. 22-24, 1987, page 206. (Because gasoline production costs more per gallon than methanol, but gasoline has an energy equivalent of 1.5 gallons of methanol, cost per mile is the only meaningful price comparison.)

20. Dewey & Merrill, “Hemp Hurds As Papermaking Material,” U.S.D.A. Bulletin No. 404, 1916, page 3 states: “The yield of hemp fiber varies from 400 to 2,500 pounds per acre, averaging 1,000 pounds under favorable conditions. The weight of hurds is about five times that of the fiber, or somewhat greater from hemp grown on peaty soils.”

Lyster H. Dewey, Botanist in Charge of Fiber-Plant Investigations, Bureau of Plant Industry, YEARBOOK OF THE UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE 1913, page 310, states the relative proportions of the hemp plant are: stems 60%, leaves 30%, and roots 10%. So an acre of hemp that yields 1 ton of fiber also produces 5 tons of hurds, and 3 tons of leaves, or 9 tons of dry biomass.

21. The University of Hawaii Natural Energy Institute states that a facility producing 1700 MLPY (440 million gallons per year) or methanol requires 7000 tons per day of biomass feedstock. If each acre of hemp yields 9 tons per harvest, the 3 harvests per year possible in Hawaii and Puerto Rico will produce 27 oven dry tons per acre. 7000 x 365 days = 2,555,000 tons per year. Thus the number of acres needed to supply hemp for the bio-methanol facility equals 2,555,000 divided by 27 (tons per acre per year) = 94,630. Rounded off, 95,000 acres are needed to supply 7000 tons of biomass per day that will produce 1700 MLPY (449 million gallons per year) of methanol.

22. BROWN’S SECOND ALCOHOL FUEL COOKBOOK, Michael H. Brown, TAB Books Inc., Pa., 1981, page 212.

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