Kentucky's debate on hemp so far has centered on the marijuana question and the market question. But Roger Ford has one of his own: What about the energy question?
Ford, CEO of Patriot BioEnergy in Pikeville, said hemp could be a huge boon to the one thing Eastern Kentucky has relied on for decades for economic prosperity: coal.
"We're looking at this as an energy crop," Ford said. His company, which is planning to build energy plants to process biofuels, has looked at sweet sorghum but doesn't think the yield would be profitable enough. Instead, he has turned to hybrid sugar beets, which will give him sugars that can be turned into ethanol, plastics and flavorings.
But the advantages from hemp would be exponentially greater, Ford said, because hemp oil from seeds could be used for aviation fuel and biodiesel. Other parts of the plant — such as the "hurds" from the woody middle of the stalk — could be used for cellulosic ethanol.
Ford said the biomass also could be blended with Kentucky's high-sulfur coal to "green" it up.
"We're working with coal companies right now on a strategy for post-mining land use to add value to the land and create jobs," Ford said.
He said he is working on potential ways to use reclaimed mine land to produce the crops that could then be blended with the coal to create a "value-added" product for power plants that need to reduce their emissions without sacrificing energy-producing capability.
On Feb. 11, Ford spoke at a pro-hemp rally in the Capitol Rotunda in Frankfort, the same day that the state Senate Agriculture Committee passed Senate Bill 50 to create a framework to license Kentucky farmers to grow hemp if federal restrictions are lifted.
Ford said he is encouraged by the support of Kentucky's federal legislators, including U.S. Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, and Reps. John Yarmuth and Thomas Massie, for either passing a bill distinguishing hemp from marijuana or granting a waiver to let Kentucky test the viability of hemp.
Ford planned to testify at the Kentucky House Agriculture and Small Business hearing Wednesday morning on the hemp bill, but the prospects are uncertain.
Ford, whose background is in economic development and Republican politics, said he hopes to bring a new aspect to the discussion Wednesday.
The market for hemp fiber and hemp foods has generated a lot of discussion, Ford said, but "the biggest opportunities are transportation fuel and power generation."
His company is developing integrated energy parks that could use coal, natural gas, solar energy and bioenergy together, co-firing coal and biomass.
"I'm for coal, for mining more coal," Ford said. "This is not about picking and choosing. ... It's for integrating natural resources for doing things better. This is about helping coal in Eastern Kentucky. We can be even more competitive by blending coal and biomass, creating value. I'm an energy guy."
The coal companies see it as potential vertical integration, he said: They could grow the biomass on land that has been mined, then blend it with their coal.
All energy companies are looking for ways to meet federally mandated renewable-fuel standards that require increasing amounts of ethanol and other biofuels to reduce the amount of imported petroleum and greenhouse gas emissions.
All the technology exists, said Katherine Andrews, a biochemist who is consulting with Ford on his project.
The renewable-fuel standards — including a push by the Navy for a "green fleet" with at least half of its fuel from non-petroleum sources by 2020 — give Kentucky a window of opportunity to get into biofuels, she said.
The International Renewable Energy Agency estimates that global power generation will shift over the next 30 years, with slowing growth from coal and increasing growth from renewable fuel sources.
"It's here whether Kentucky likes it or not. We're trying to give people in coal and agriculture a piece of it going forward," Andrews said. "There's no reason Kentucky couldn't be a big part of this."
Kentucky appears to be lagging behind other states: A Department of Energy map of biomass resources in the United States shows only about a dozen Kentucky counties with potential biomass of more than 100,000 tons a year; neighboring states Ohio, Indiana and Illinois have far denser existing biomass resources, much of that based on corn.
Kentucky has an ethanol plant in Hopkinsville that processes corn; another in Louisville uses beverage waste. Altogether, there were 551 ethanol-based jobs in Kentucky, according to the Renewable Fuels Association.
Despite significant growth in biofuels worldwide, hemp has not been on the radar so far.
"To date, no one has produced ethanol out of hemp at a commercial scale, which probably speaks to the economics more than anything else," said Christina Martin, Renewable Fuels Association executive vice president.
Tom Kimmerer, a renewable-energy consultant in Kentucky, said he is skeptical that existing strains of hemp can produce the yields necessary for biofuel production on the poor soil of reclaimed mine land.
"There is no question that hemp has high yields per acre when grown on excellent soil with adequate fertilization and moisture," Kimmerer said. "However, prices of corn, soybeans, livestock and other agricultural commodities are high and will remain so. It will be difficult for a farmer to justify growing hemp on high-quality land when traditional commodities are much more profitable."
To be cost-effective, biofuels need the highest yields possible from the poorest land with the lowest inputs, Kimmerer said. Hemp oil yields in Canada are about 15 gallons per acre, he said, compared with 75 to 240 gallons for canola.
Kentucky, he said, will need a variety of biofuels, and hemp might be a right fit for some producers if the right strains can be identified or developed.
"I would be glad to be proven wrong," Kimmerer said. "Before farmers will be persuaded to try a new crop, there needs to be extensive research. Funds could be made available to the University of Kentucky to do test plots comparing hemp yields with switchgrass, cottonwood trees and other well-known biofuel plants."
Ford said he is convinced that hemp will work, based on testing on hemp he has imported from Canada.
He said hemp can produce enough biomass to support a small-scale processing plant within a 50- to 100-mile radius; he has identified potential sites in Whitley County that could be supported by thousands of acres that are not being used for farming. His goal is to build a small processing plant that could produce enough energy to support itself and even, eventually, sell power back into the electricity grid.
"What's missing in the industrial hemp argument is the potential for this crop, based on its ties to Kentucky," Ford said. "The energy piece is a big piece, but nobody is talking about it."
House Agriculture and Small Business Committee meeting
What: Committee has hemp legislation on the agenda.
When: 8 a.m. Feb. 27
Where: Capitol Annex Room 129, 700 Capitol Ave. Loop, Frankfort