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An experimental program to raise thickets of tall willows as a fuel for generating electricity was launched this year with modest 10-acre plantings at Lafayette, near Syracuse, and Wolcott in Wayne County.

Next spring, Willow Biomass, the experimental planting funded by the federal government, will move to Western New York, a program staffer said.

"We expect to plant 57 acres near Fredonia and 38 acres near South Dayton," said Ronald Fillhart, a staff worker as the State College of Environmental Science and Forestry at Syracuse University. Lawrence Abrahamson, a faculty member, is directing the program for the Salix Consortium, which consists of Niagara Mohawk Power Corp., New York State Electric & Gas Corp., New York State Energy Research Development Authority, Cornell University and the University of Toronto.

The project aims to plant thousands of acres with the tall willows that will fuel area power stations, replacing 5 to 15 percent of the fossil fuels now used to generate electricity.

While that goal is 10 to 15 years away, assessing the plan's effectiveness is probably just five years off, Fillhart said.

The experiment is funded by $13.4 million in grants from the U.S. Energy and Agriculture departments. The success of the Swedish willow-biomass industry is a role model for the New Yorkers.

Finding the type of willow best suited for the project and getting the land to grow the willows are the immediate tasks.

The growing site should be within 50 miles of a generating station such as Niagara Mohawk's Dunkirk facility.

"We are looking for agricultural land that can support the machinery that will harvest the willows in the early spring," Fillhart said. "We cannot use wetlands because machinery would bog down in them."

Fillhart said a Geneva-area site also is likely to be planted with willow shoots in 1998 and that a 100-acre plot west of Rochester near Lake Ontario is being targeted for 1999.

Because willows regenerate and can reach 20-foot heights within three years, planters can expect a harvest every three years of 8 to 10 tons per acre.

Owners of the experimental plots are being paid annual rents of less than $50 an acre. Once harvested, the willows are chopped into sizes that can be fed to steam furnaces.

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