From the fiercely contested Keystone XL pipeline to the BP oil spill - and high prices at the pumps - the impetus to develop alternatives to traditional fossil fuels is stronger than ever.
Biofuels, which are produced from "biomass feedstocks" such as perennials, woody crops and forest residues, will likely play a significant role in any new energy mix. With a $4 million grant from the Department of Agriculture, Steve Kelley and researchers from N.C. State are trying to understand how the industry may develop in North Carolina.
"North Carolina is a veritable wood basket," said Kelley. "Additionally, we have a long growing season, available land, abundant rainfall and a wealth of skilled farmers and foresters."
Researching how biofuels can be produced - transported, and stored, and what infrastructure North Carolina may need to accomplish these tasks - are key aspects of Kelley's and colleagues' work. There are many other issues that may require complex solutions, which the researchers are trying to address.
"Developing biofuels may change the landscape," said Kelley. "Some of the feedstocks will require fertilizers, and there are questions about the effects on water and wildlife."
Kelly noted that the USDA grant was intended to accelerate the demonstration of biomass production systems "at commercial scale" - around 1,000 to 2,000 tons of biomass per day - and to fund demonstration of fuel conversion technologies.
Once environmental issues are mitigated and logistical hurdles overcome, biofuels may drive significant economic activity in North Carolina. The industry could create jobs and generate landowner income for local communities, and may eventually have a role in the national energy mix as well.
"The USDA's 'Regional Roadmap to Meeting Biofuels Goals' concludes that the southeast U.S. will produce 50 percent of the nation's biofuels by 2022," Kelley said.