Economics and Energy of Ethanol Production from Alfalfa, Corn, and Switchgrass in the Upper Midwest, USA
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- Vadas, P.A., Barnett, K.H. & Undersander, D.J. Bioenerg. Res. (2008) 1: 44. doi:10.1007/s12155-008-9002-1
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In the USA, biomass crop systems will be needed to meet future ethanol production goals. We estimated production costs, profits, and energy budgets for three potential crop systems for the Upper Midwest: continuous corn with stover harvest, an alfalfa–corn rotation with stover harvest, and switchgrass. Production costs, profits, and on-farm energy use were greatest for continuous corn, less for alfalfa–corn, and least for switchgrass. Energy to transport crops was similar for all crop systems. Both energy used to produce ethanol and energy output in ethanol was greatest for continuous corn, less for alfalfa–corn, and least for switchgrass. Co-product energy output was 32% greater for alfalfa–corn than continuous corn and 42% greater than switchgrass. Net energy produced (outputs–inputs) was greatest for switchgrass, followed by continuous corn, and then alfalfa–corn. Efficiency of energy production (outputs/inputs) was greatest for switchgrass, followed by alfalfa–corn, and then continuous corn. Our analysis emphasizes tradeoffs among crop systems. Corn may produce high rates of ethanol and net energy, but will do so least efficiently and with the greatest erosion and N leaching. Corn may have the greatest production costs, but return the greatest profit. Comparatively, alfalfa–corn will produce less ethanol and net energy, but will do so more efficiently, and with less erosion and little N leaching. Production costs, but also profits, may be less for alfalfa–corn than continuous corn. Switchgrass may produce the most net energy and will do so most efficiently and with the least erosion, but will also yield the least ethanol. Nitrogen leaching will be less for switchgrass than corn, but greater than alfalfa–corn. Switchgrass may be the least expensive to produce, but may return a profit only if selling prices or yields are high.