The state of Oklahoma announced Thursday that it will plant more than 1,100 acres of switchgrass to be used to produce ethanol.

The Oklahoma Bioenergy Center, a state-funded collaboration of Oklahoma universities that aims to advance the use of ethanol from non-food sources, will begin planting the switchgrass within the next 45 days. The center plans to convert the switchgrass into cellulosic ethanol at a biorefinery some 35 miles away. The biorefinery is under construction and is scheduled to begin operations in 2010.

The move is a step forward for energy crops, which could help push cellulosic ethanol forward but which also are controversial, as some fear that the crops could encroach on land needed to grow food.

Ethanol, once the darling of all clean-fuel technologies, has received substantial criticism from studies that question its environmental benefits and its potential competition with food.

Advocates hope that cellulosic ethanol will solve the problems because it can use non-food or waste biomass, such as corncobs and woodchips. But so far, cellulosic ethanol has proven more costly than regular ethanol made from corn and sugar, and part of that cost comes from the difficulty ofr harvesting and collecting enough of the materials, from disperse locations, to make it cost-effective.
Planting cellulosic crops specifically for fuel is one idea for gathering more of the material in one place, but critics such as Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, have said using farmland for fuel crops will continue to jeopardize the food supply – exacerbating the problem that cellulosic ethanol is meant to solve (see Lester Brown Talks Smack About Ethanol).

Oklahoma secretary of energy David Fleischaker admits that rising food costs have brought about a backlash against certain types of renewable fuels, but says that switchgrass is a non-entity in the food versus fuel debate.

"Cellulosic ethanol from sources like switchgrass and sorghum are non-competitive with food sources for animals and humans and remove cellulosic ethanol from this discussion," he said in a statement. "More so, this dedicated land will allow us to demonstrate the advantages of switchgrass."

The advantage of switchgrass is that it is drought resistant, making it less of a burden on irrigation supply, and produces more energy than corn, according to the announcement.

Cellulosic companies like Coskata say that energy crops are needed, and that some companies are developing energy crops that could grow on land that currently isn’t usable for growing food. 

“The story isn’t just waste,” said Wes Bolsen, chief marketing officer for Coskata, earlier this month. “I’d hate for people to generate more waste because we need new biofuels. That would be crazy. Could [new energy crops] replace acres of corn, soybeans and other food crops? Of course. But what is our alternative?”

Moreover, earlier this week, industry organization Ethanol Promotion and Information Council highlighted a recent study by the Argonne National Laboratory that showed U.S. ethanol production is improving its efficiency, with water consumption reduced by 26.6 percent and energy by 21.8 percent between 2001 and 2006.
But environmental advocates aren’t convinced.

"Even if you are looking at cellulosic ethanol, it just doesn't seem like a good idea to be taking land that would be used forrom growing food and getting fuel from it," said Frances Moore, a staff researcher at the Earth Policy Institute.