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Working on making willow the energy crop of the future

Ellen Abbott
Harvesting equipment in a willow field south of Syracuse.

While most central and northern New York crops are being planted right now, there’s one that’s being harvested. SUNY ESF researchers are harvesting willow, as part of a project that continues to find the best way to use the woody plant as an alternative energy source.

When most people hear the word willow, an image of a weeping willow tree comes to mind. But that’s not what SUNY ESF researchers are working on in the Willow Project, a program that’s developing a biomass energy source.

"They are in the same genus, but different species, and the species we are targeting here are in shrub form," said Justin Heavey, who manages the SUNY ESF willow crops.

"It more or less just grows on its own. I maintain areas the fields to maintain access. And express the vegetation around the actual willow. But other than that once it’s actually established, there’s nothing to maintain,” said Heavey.

Research on willow biomass crops started at SUNY ESF in 1986, and it’s the longest running program in North America. Researchers have planted genetically improved varieties of the perennial shrubs on marginal farm land across the area. The willow grows quickly, and it can be used for biomass production in just three to four years, with three year harvesting cycles after that.

SUNY ESF land managers are harvesting willow in some farmland south of Syracuse on a warm spring day.

There’s a special machine that harvests willow. It slowly moves down a line of willow, cutting shrubs down to the ground as it goes. It then mulches the wood into small chips, which are then spewed into a trailer.

Credit Ellen Abbott / WRVO News
A harvested willow chip

“When we run this as an optimal operation we can produce 25 to 30 tons of chips an hour,” which are sold to an electricity company, according to program director Timothy Volk.

“The main user of willow here in New York state is ReEnergy. They are a power company energy that runs wood fire power plants,” said Volk.

ReEnergy has bought almost all of the willow grown on 1,200 acres of private land in mostly central and northern New York. So willow has made a dent in the move towards more renewable energy. But Volk admits that the energy climate right now is not optimal for business.

"A few years ago when oil prices were $100 a barrel, this kind of an energy source was looking appealing. It is renewable; it’s a low carbon fuel. But it’s tough to compete with $50 dollar a barrel oil.”

So researchers continue to look for more efficiency in the process; optimizing performance of the harvester to produce as many tons per hour as you possibly can, and improving the collection and transportation system associated with it. Heavey sees willow is a perfect fit for farmers, because the plant can tolerate wet soil, land farmers often can’t use.

“Especially compared to other certain agricultural corps. Corn can’t produce economic yields in field in New York state because they are too wet,” said Heavey.

So he’d like to see a day when farmers could tap some of that unused land to create energy for themselves.

"So they could potentially meet their own heating needs by growing their own fuel, and then if they grow more than that they could sell the extra for profit, and kind of kill two birds with one stone.”

Ultimately Volk says willow has to be taken into as part of the renewable energy portfolio along with solar and wind.

"The anticipation is that two things. One, energy prices are going to go up, and two, we have to address climate change. We do need to start shifting to more renewable low carbon fuels. And willow is certainly that.”

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.