‘BioMass Better Than Gaming’: Rosebud Sioux Elder Pushing Proposal in South Dakota

Lynn Armitage

If you call John Lytle a visionary, he will modestly deflect the compliment and say that developing alternative energy sources is what he was meant to do.

“It’s my calling,” said the 72-year-old founder and CEO of First American Renewables, Ltd., a Colorado-based company on a mission to develop up to eight biomass processing plants and related agricultural opportunities throughout South Dakota, with the help of BBI International, a bioenergy firm experienced in biomass development. His proposal calls for processing plants to be located relatively close to the state’s Indian reservations and operational railroads for easy distribution.

Lytle says that there are two business opportunities for him. One involves growing the switchgrass and getting it to the plant. The other is building the processing plant and operating it. “I’d like to think that the tribes would hire me to coordinate those activities to bring the deal together,” he said.

But the cornerstone of his vision is switchgrass. Lytle believes if tribes in the Northern Plains grow this hardy, drought-resistant crop on their lands to make biomass feedstock for these processing plants, it would create both an economic boon in the multi-millions for tribes (over 10 to 12 years) and help produce a reliable source of renewable diesel and jet fuels, as well as methanol (Lytle said tribes could be part owners in the processing plants, too.).

“Tribes in the targeted area are all part of the original Greater Sioux Nation,” said the Rosebud Sioux member in his executive summary. “Each of the eight tribes controls a land base large enough to support the growing and harvesting of at least 10,000 to 12,000 acres of switchgrass …” which will produce 55,000 to 60,000 tons of feedstock needed annually by local biomass processing plants, according to Lytle’s estimations. He said it will take three years to grow switchgrass to maturity, and in most cases, will have a total life cycle of at least 10 to 12 years.

The very animated Lytle, who has his own reserve of renewable energy, spoke to ICTMN about his biomass vision:

Why should tribes be interested in the biomass business?

I think biomass represents one of the most exciting opportunities to come along for Indian Country. It’s so much better than gaming. Biomass will allow tribes to leverage or use their biggest asset — their large land bases within their boundaries — to grow switchgrass, a perennial, high-value energy crop that they can sell to biomass plants, year after year. It will also help create jobs for each tribe and the surrounding communities — roughly 35 to 45 agricultural, handling and transportation-based jobs; 35 to 40 construction jobs to build the plant; and an additional 20 to 24 on-site jobs to run it.

How much money can tribes make from growing switchgrass for feedstock?

Much of the land being considered for switchgrass development is currently being leased to non-tribal farmers and ranchers as grazing land, at a rate of roughly $22 to $25 per acre. In comparison, a biomass processing plant will pay about $60 to $70 per ton for switchgrass. One acre of switchgrass will produce about five to six tons, so that amounts to about $300 to $420 per acre annually, gross revenue, compared to the $22 to $25 per acre they are getting just for grazing.

How many tribes in Indian country are already growing switchgrass or other materials for biomass?

I could be wrong, but I’m not aware of anyone but the Shakopee Sioux Tribe in Minnesota, which started one of the first commercial-grade biomass operations in Indian country. They would qualify as kind of a pioneer for the overall effort. We are hoping to garner their support for our efforts in South Dakota.

While it is true that the Feds have provided funds to numerous tribes ($42 million for over 175 projects), most of those involve small, locally based projects … funds were used to fund feasibility studies, business reviews, etc., for numerous projects, none of which has resulted in any commercial grade projects. Their heart was in the right place and the intent is genuine, but nothing ever comes to fruition.

How much will it cost a tribe to grow this feedstock?


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WhiteManWanting's picture
Submitted by WhiteManWanting on
What efforts have been made to compare the costs vs. the end return on industrial hemp? Given the great diversity of products that can come from hemp, I'm wondering if the potential may be even greater than from switchgrass. High quality protein supplements are already being imported to the U.S. from Canada, where growing of industrial hemp is legal, for example. The old obvious use for production of rope is always available. And high quality biodiesel can be produced from hemp as well as hemp oil, hemp seed, etc. My understanding is that it is also a drought resistant crop, and rather free from pests and disease. Of course the "drug" argument doesn't apply with industrial hemp, despite what many in D.C. could have people believe - totally different crops, despite being related. And wouldn't reservations be able to grow it right now anyway, as a crop, despite the insane federal prohibition on the growing of industrial hemp? Perhaps there's an additional option besides just switchgrass.

ndn_peanut's picture
Submitted by ndn_peanut on
This doesn't sound sustainable at all. Monocultures with acres upon acres of one crop is not the way to go if you're interested in a long-term (I'm thinking 7 generations here) and environmentally friendly way to produce biomass and biofuels. Here's a link about why monocultures are problematic: https://www.openpermaculture.com/magazine/six-problems-monoculture-farming