Hybrid Poplars

Hybrid poplars just may provide a fast-growing answer to America's energy crisis.

| July/August 1980

Pennsylvania Dutch country would appear to many folks an unlikely place in which to find a solution to this nation's energy problems. The fertile fields roll toward the horizon ... prosperous farms dot the landscape ... and local folks use horses and buggies for transportation! Yet deep in the rich Amish and Mennonite farm country—near Ephrata, Pennsylvania—grow rows of trees that may someday set us free from our gasoline bondage ... and can already provide low-cost heat for the homestead house.

The hybrid poplar trees flourishing at the Miles W. Fry & Son Nursery have a couple of fascinating characteristics. First, they grow rapidly ... really rapidly. A ten-inch-long uprooted cutting, for instance, will shoot up 5 to 8 feet in one year ... will grow to between 10 and 14 feet in two years ... and will top 25 feet in five years. What's more, when you harvest that 5-year-old tree, a replacement begins growing from the stump. And because this second growth has a fully mature root system to feed it, it grows to harvestable size even more quickly than did its "parent!" According to Morton Fry, head of the nursery, at least six crops can be harvested from the same stump!

That's all very interesting, you may well say ... but cars can't run on trees! Well, the fact is that they can, after the hardwoods have been converted to ethanol. Corn isn't the only feedstock that can be used for the production of alcohol, and a darned good case can be made for the economic benefits of producing ethanol from hybrid poplar wood chips. Research into cellulose conversion is currently going on at Dr. E. Kendall Pye's University of Pennsylvania laboratories ... funded in part by General Electric and the Department of Energy.

And Dr. Pye—with the cooperation of the folks at the Fry Nursery—has come up with some projections that should make our energy planners sit up and take notice. For instance: All of America 's automobiles could be fueled by the alcohol produced from 120 million acres of hybrid poplars.

Sure, that sounds like a lot of land ... but it's been estimated (by the Department of Energy) that there are 500 million acres available for such purposes in this country right now. And that figure doesn't include our millions of acres of mine spoils and sanitary landfills—"waste" areas on which the poplars reportedly thrive—or the unused land along highway right-of-ways. The fact is that there's an abundance of marginal and submarginal acreage available for energy plantations ... and the poplar people have some pretty big plans ready to make use of that land.

Such large-scale projects are complemented by more individual-scale plans, too. Of course, any operation that intends to turn out 220 billion gallons of fuel per year has got to be big. If America were to convert completely to ethanol fuels, we would need some 11,000 of the 20-million gallon-per-year distilleries that appear to be the most efficient size for such a purpose ... and that kind of alcohol production can't be considered a backyard operation by any stretch of the imagination. (By way of comparison, running MOTHER EARTH NEWS' "in the works" 12-inch column still eight hours a day for 356 days a year—holidays off—would produce just 62,500 gallons annually!)

Chris Saenz
2/21/2014 11:41:06 AM

Funny that they don't mention wood gas vehicles in the article. My woodgas truck uses a pound of wood per mile. If these numbers are right (15 dry tons/acre), a mere half acre of trees can provide me 15,000+ miles of driving, every year forever. Sounds pretty sustainable to me!

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