Tuesday, March 3, 2015

EcoWillow 2.0 – Updated Tool for Financial Analysis of Willow Biomass

EcoWillow is a financial analysis tool for willow bioenergy crops developed by the Willow Project Research Group at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF). The tool was first released in 2008 and has been widely used since then, with downloads by over 1000 users in 70 countries around the world. The original model was based primarily on over 20 years of research and development of willow biomass crops at SUNY-ESF. A new version of this tool, EcoWillow 2.0, was released in October 2014. Version 2.0 has been comprehensively updated based on the latest research studies from trials across North America, data collected from commercial willow operations, and input from producers currently growing willow in New York State. The harvesting-module of EcoWillow has been updated based on the development and testing of a single-pass cut-and-chip harvesting system under development since 2008 in collaboration with New Holland Agriculture and other partners. A new module in EcoWillow 2.0 allows users to include multiple fields/locations and transport distances in one project analysis, and enables more precise calculations of headlands and planted areas. The new version also includes a more user-friendly design and other improvements based on feedback from various stakeholders in the willow industry. Four crop production scenarios have been developed using EcoWillow 2.0 to show the impact of key variables on costs and revenues. The outputs of these scenarios demonstrate the potential for willow biomass crops to produce favorable returns on investment when best practice targets are employed and/or incentive programs are available.
EcoWillow will continue to be improved and updated as collaboration between producers, researchers and industry partners continues to spur innovation and advance the system. The latest versions of the model and supporting documentation can be downloaded at no-cost from the Willow Project website (go to www.esf.edu/willow then follow the links for EcoWillow). Both English and metric unit versions of the model are available there, along with several fact sheets, an instructional video and contact information for follow-up inquiries. This work has been supported by the New York State Energy Research and Development Agency (NYSERDA), the United States Department of Energy (USDOE) and the US Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA NIFA) through the Northeast Woody/Warm Season Biomass Consortium (NEWBio).

Screenshots of various modules within EcoWillow 2.0 under the improved (hypothetical) crop production scenario that assumes achievement of several best practice targets throughout the production system.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Assisting bioenergy farmers using new technologies for crop monitoring

Monitoring and managing hundreds or thousands of acres of new bioenergy crops can be challenging. For biomass feedstocks like shrub willow, the first few growing seasons after planting are a critical time in the lifecycle of the crop. Shrub willow is a pioneer species that requires full sunlight, unimpeded by competing vegetation, to maximize its potential for rapid growth rates. Cultivated varieties of shrub willow are mostly resistant to major incidence of pests and diseases, but sporadic outbreaks sometimes occur that can impact crop growth. These and other issues that could reduce crop performance need to be identified and addressed as quickly as possible so the plants and root system can become fully established and dominate the site. 

One tool that has recently assisted in these efforts for commercial willow crops in New York State is GPS-enabled cameras and mapping software. Digital cameras with built-in GPS units are becoming more common and affordable. An internal GPS receiver allows each photo taken in the field to be “geo-tagged” with geographic information including the location (coordinates) where the photo was taken, the direction of the shot, and other spatial information. Photos can then be input into a computer and viewed on aerial maps using one of several free software programs such as “GeoSetter” or “Google Earth”. This allows visual information on crops across widespread areas to be conveyed and shared quickly and easily. Extension personnel can communicate the overall health and vigor of a crop across several hundred acres in one map (Figure 1) and highlight areas where additional management may be warranted, all in one computer file easily shared amongst growers and other stakeholders. A picture can say a thousand words, and a series of geo-tagged photos distributed across an interactive map of commercial-scale bioenergy plantings can efficiently and effectively communicate large amounts of information. Using this approach consistently over time also creates a digital archive of photo-maps than can further assist in the long-term tracking of crop development and the effectiveness of various management practices.    

This technology has been an effective crop monitoring tool for extension staff at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF) who are providing technical assistance to commercial growers managing 1,200 acres of willow biomass crops in Northern New York. Crop monitoring reports, centered around geo-tagged photo-maps created throughout the growing season, allowed extension staff to precisely communicate areas of weed competition and pest outbreak (Figure 2) so growers could quickly implement additional management in targeted areas. Over 800 acres of newly planted willow crops, now one-year-old on a two-year-old root systems, are four to eight feet tall and generally in good condition, thanks in part to this new technology and innovative approach to crop monitoring. 


Figure 1. (click to enlarge) A series of geo-tagged photos across five hundred acres of shrub willow bioenergy crops in New York State, displayed in the Google Earth software program. Each thumbnail on the map can be expanded to provide visual reports of crop conditions, weed and pest pressure in precise locations across large areas.

Figure 2. (click to enlarge) Geo-tagged photos across a 100 acre parcel of new willow biomass crops helped to identify and mitigate isolated outbreaks of leaf sawfly in 2014, a willow pest that can completely defoliate a young willow plants if not properly managed.