Closing the Loop
This year, Ontario, Ore.-based Agri Energy Producers Association grew 1,500 acres of a hybrid sorghum developed by energy grass seed company Ceres Inc. The grower-owned energy cooperative plans to grow up to 30,000 acres next year, marking its presence as a dominant U.S. energy crop producer.
AEPA members will have a leg up on other energy crop growers because they don’t have to search for a buyer. They plan to use the sorghum in their own closed-loop electricity production model.
AEPA co-founders Lance Wells and Kurt Christiensen started putting the co-op together about five years ago, according to Wells. “We created it because it was the best option versus getting investors,” he says. “This way, it's farmer owned. We needed a huge operation in order to back up a biomass supply chain—lots of growers—so we decided to create this.”
AEPA’s closed-loop model consists of growing and harvesting the sorghum plant and using presses to separate the juice from the fiber. The juice will be sent into a 5-megawatt (MW) biogas power plant and the fiber will be used as feedstock at a 10-MW biomass power plant. AEPA will sell the electricity to interested buyers.
“What separates us from everyone is that we’re the only ones handling the wet [sorghum], so that’s the real secret,” Wells adds. “We store it as silage, pull it out, split it apart and create electricity from both sides.”
AEPA’s first power plant is in the planning and financing stages, according to Wells. Meanwhile, the co-op will continue to recruit growers. “We’re set up to go nationwide,” Wells adds. “We can duplicate this model anywhere that this crop can be grown, and that has good interconnection points for the power sales.”