The production of ethanol from sugar beet and the grass variety Micanthus in North Holland cannot compete with petrol from oil at this moment. An energy crop is only profitable if energy prices are high and when grown on poor quality land.
'With the prevailing oil prices, the cultivation of energy crops in North Holland is not worth the while', says Van der Hilst. 'But if the oil price rises and conversion techniques improve, ethanol from crops can be competitive in certain situations.' The grass variety Miscanthus is more promising as an energy crop than sugar beet, because it can be harvested all through the twenty years after it is planted, with simple management practices which keep costs low. Besides, the yields are relatively high even in less favourable circumstances. Furthermore, the processing technique for Miscanthus - which converts cellulose into ethanol - is still in its infancy, with a 35 percent rate of return. Technologists estimate that these returns will increase in the coming years to about 50 percent. Should the oil price double too, ethanol production from Miscanthus in North Holland would become competitive, Van der Hilst predicts.
Cost calculations for energy crops have been made before. 'But we are the first to consider the local characteristics: what are the current land use, the soil and the rainfall like?' explains Van der Hilst. 'That led us to the possibility that energy crops in North Holland could only be profitable when grown on marginal agricultural land. This is because Miscanthus requires less from the soil than food crops do.'
Van der Hilst also uses the research technique to study the possibility of having energy crops in Ukraine and Mozambique. 'The Netherlands is a small country where land and labour are expensive. The potential is higher in countries with lower costs and more favourable climate and soil conditions. She will be graduating under Professor Andre Faaij in Utrecht and Johan Sanders, professor of Valorization of Plant Production Chains in Wageningen.