NEWBio Feedstocks Comparison

This article compares the feedstocks--switchgrass, giant miscanthus, and willow--used in the NEWBio program.
NEWBio Feedstocks Comparison - Articles
NEWBio Feedstocks Comparison

The NEWBio project focuses on three primary perennial crops for biomass feedstock: switchgrass, giant miscanthus, and willow. Why are we looking at these species? They all:

  • Provide feedstock for heat, electricity, or liquid fuels
  • Are fast growing and high yielding in short periods of time
  • Help reduce carbon emissions compared to other crops
  • Grow well on marginal land, such as wet soils, so they do not compete with other food crops
  • Tolerate cold and drought conditions
  • Provide numerous environmental and wildlife benefits
  • Have attractive rates of return compared to other uses of marginal land

Millions of acres of idle and marginal lands in the Northeast are conducive for growing these energy crops. As the market for bioenergy products develops, these energy crops will provide an important source of material for heat, electricity, or liquid fuels. An average acre of these crops will produce about 300-400 gallons of cellulosic ethanol, or the equivalent of 70-100 million BTUs (British thermal units) of energy. Although these crops have different cash flow profiles and management considerations, they all can provide viable economic returns.

FeedstockSwitchgrassGiant miscanthusWillow
Growing cycleHarvested annually for 20 yearsHarvested annually for 20 yearsHarvested every 3 years for 7 cycles
Planting stockSeedRhizomesCuttings
Plants per acreAbout 8 pounds of seedAbout 6,000 rhizomesAbout 6,000 cuttings
Establishment costAbout $500/acreAbout $1,500/acreAbout $1,000/acre
Yields per acre4-6 dry tons/year8-12 dry tons/year4-6 dry tons/year
FertilizerNeeded for maintenance applicationsNot neededMay be useful every few cycles
Herbicide useAt establishment phaseAt establishment phaseAt establishment phase
Pests/diseasesFew knownUnknownSome knoen
Harvest methodConventional hay equipmentConventional hay equipmentSpecialized forage header equipment
Harvest timingGenerally in late winter/early springGenerally in late winter/early springGenerally in winter, can b year-round
InvasivenessSome cultivars are not invasiveNoninvasiveMost cultivars are not invasive
Feedstock propertiesHigh BTUs, low water content, low ash contentHigh BTUs, low water content, low ash contentVery high BTUs, very low ash content

"NEWBio" is the Northeast Woody/Warm-season Bioenergy Consortium, a regional project funded by the United States Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA) to promote next-generation bioenergy production in the northeastern United States. For more information visit the NEWBio website and Penn State Extension's website.

Prepared by Mike Jacobson, professor of forest resources, Penn State; David Marrison, extension educator and assistant professor, Ohio State; Zane Helsel, extension specialist, Rutgers University; Dennis Rak, owner, Double A Willow; and Barry Forgeng and Nichole Heil, interns, Penn State.


Water Energy Food Nexus Bioenergy Agroforestry Forest Economics and Finance International Forestry Forest Extension Non Timber Forest Products

More by Michael Jacobson, Ph.D.