Oxford, N.C. — The clock is ticking on the state’s ambitious goal to replace 10 percent of petroleum-based fuel with locally grown biofuels by 2017.
Researchers at the nonprofit Biofuels Center of North Carolina are studying a hardy and fast-growing plant that could be the answer. But critics say it’s risky.
The Arundo donax, a cane-like plant, grows in abundance. Crops reach up to 20 feet tall, don’t take up much land, need little fertilizer and can tolerate drought.
“It has the traits you want,” said Steven Burke of the Biofuels Center, which is growing the plant in a field in Oxford.
According to the Biofuels Center, the Arundo donax can produce up to 20 tons per acre of biomass that could be turned into biofuel, compared with 6 to 8 tons per acre for switchgrass, another plant being explored for biofuel.
That number could make Arundo donax a commercially viable energy crop.
But there's another side to Arundo. Tony Koop, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says it can be an invasive plant.
Arundo has spread through 25 states. It's especially bad in the Southwest and California, where it damages rivers and streams, creates erosion and flooding, and destroys native habitats.
“It’s definitely a problem in lots of places,” Koop said. “But just because it's one of the worst weeds out in the Southwest doesn't mean it's going behave like a terrible invasive exotic here.”
Burke said Arundo can be safely managed so it doesn't turn into a problem plant. And he said it could be crucial to meeting the biofuels goal.
The state can reach that 10 percent mark, Burke said, but only if manufacturers have enough plants to turn into fuel.