- [Narrator] Cornell University in Upstate New York is a research leader in alternative biofuels. Here they focus on perennial crops, plants that can live through multiple growing seasons. - So corn and sugarcane, easy to convert. Sounds like it's pretty good. Why don't we do that instead of the perennials? - So in order to produce corn, you need to plow the field annually, apply pesticides and herbicides, apply a lot of nitrogen fertilizer to get those high yields of corn, and then harvest it annually. - Okay. So a lot more caring and feeding. - Right and a lot more energy. - Yeah, okay. - So the net energy that you're putting in is almost the same as the energy that you're getting out in the ethanol product. Now with the perennial crop like willow, we're only planting it once. So over the course of a 25-year lifespan of a willow plantation, we're putting in a lot less energy than we would planting 25 years of corn crops. These are shrub willows, not your typical weeping willow tree. These are willow shrubs that in the past have been used for basket-making. We're harvesting wood chips, and wood chips are a feedstock for cellulosic ethanol. - How long has this been growing? I mean we're looking at something what? 10, 11, 12 feet tall here. - Yeah some of these stems are 12, and in the middle maybe 14 feet tall, all growth from this current season. - This season? - Right. - So when did that start? Like May or? - Yeah so you're asking when did the snow melt here in New York. - Yeah okay. - And that's actually one of the advantages of willow is it's one of the earliest plants to break bud in the spring. - Okay. - And they break bud in the middle of April, maybe even while there's still snow in the ground. - Yeah you come in here and you basically mow it. I ask my kids to mow the yard every week. I mean how often are we mowing this? - Every three years, three or four years. We'll cut it back down to the ground. - So you get a large volume of biomass, the ideal volume is sort of in that three to four-year window. - Right, and also in terms of the cost and the energy that you use to run that forage harvester. It's better economically to only run it three years rather than to run this big piece of machinery on an annual basis. - Every energy form has challenges. What are some of the things you see here that are challenges to biofuels? - It's really important to find the perennial crops that are adapted for each region. Because one of the features of biomass as a feedstock is that you can't transport it very far. It's very expensive to transport. So we need to find the highest yielding, low impact perennial crops within 50 miles of each conversion facility. - [Narrator] Keeping distances short to the biorefinery, turns out to be the key issue of next-generation crops like willow or switchgrass. - So these are 750 pound bales. When we harvest switchgrass, it looks just like this. So, this is, once we pull it out, it looks just like the hay that would be found in any hay bale or in any field once the material was cut and dried, so. - If you're gonna look at replacing 10% of the nation's liquid fuels, millions of acres right? - It's millions of acres and ideally, you would have the processing facility, whether that's a cellulosic ethanol refinery or some other type of technology relatively close to where the feedstocks were produced. And the reason for that is, we don't wanna ship these no-densified bales across the country. Ideally, you'd like to ship a finished product. So if you could produce the fuel close to where you've produced the feedstock that made the fuel, that's to me makes more sense, logistically, I think that all plays into, perhaps more of what we tend to call a decentralized model, which is distributed, smaller refineries, distributed across rural America. - [Narrator] This would mean a biorefinery in most rural counties. As many as 350 of the across the North East. While alternative bioefuels may turn out to be a good energy solution, it may be hard to move that industrial process into the countryside."