Biomass Potential Still Promising

Biomass Potential Still Promising

Department of Energy releases new ‘billion-ton’ study highlighting opportunities for growth in bioenergy resources

The U.S. Department of Energy recently released a report - 2011 U.S. Billion-Ton Update: Biomass Supply for a Bioenergy and Bioproducts Industry - detailing U.S. biomass feedstock potential nationwide. The report examines the nation's capacity to produce a billion dry tons of biomass resources annually for energy uses without impacting other vital U.S. farm and forest products, such as food, feed, and fiber crops.

The report is a follow-up to a previous "Billion-Ton" study released in 2005 that provided an estimate of "potential" biomass based on numerous assumptions about current and future inventory, production capacity, availability, and technology. The analysis was made to determine if conterminous U.S. agriculture and forestry resources had the capability to produce at least one billion dry tons of sustainable biomass annually to displace 30% or more of the nation's present petroleum consumption.

Times have changed considerably from 2005 when the first Renewable Fuels Standard was approved in Congress and oil prices started to rise considerably. Ethanol production also soared in the years following 2005, and have allowed for a more-friendly investor environment for renewable fuels.

This follow-up report, generally referred to as the 2011 BT2, expands on the 2005 BTS and provides estimates of prices and quantities of the resource potential. It also treats sustainability much more rigorously, and it focuses on currently unused resources and energy crops.

The study provides industry, policymakers, and the agricultural community with county-level data and includes analyses of current U.S. feedstock capacity and the potential for growth in crops and agricultural products for clean energy applications. The biomass resources identified in the report could be used to produce clean, renewable biofuels, biopower, or bioproducts.

For example, with continued developments in biorefinery capacity and technology, the feedstock resources identified could produce about 85 billion gallons of biofuels - enough to replace approximately 30% of the nation's current petroleum consumption.

The report supports the conclusion of the original 2005 Billion-Ton Study with added in-depth production and costs analyses and sustainability studies. The 2011 report uses more rigorous models and data analysis to test the feasibility of increasing biomass production to help meet the nation's renewable energy needs. The new report also conducts in-depth analyses of land-use changes and competition among food, feed, and energy crops.

Sustainability

The report's findings demonstrate that increases in biomass-derived energy sources can be produced in a sustainable manner through the use of widely-accepted conservation practices, such as no-till farming and crop rotation. In fact, in some cases increased production may contribute to environmental improvements.

For example, removing tree portions that are unfit for market in the forest industry can reduce forest fire risk, and planting energy crops on marginal lands can reduce soil erosion. The baseline scenario in the newly released report shows that biomass resources could be increased from a current 473 million dry tons annually to nearly 1.1 billion dry tons by 2030, under a conservative set of assumptions about future increases in crop yield.

The report also points out that in general, "the farmgate or roadside price for feedstock appears to be a larger driver of biomass availability than yield rate increases, although both are important."

In the baseline, energy crops provide about 37% of the total biomass available at $60 per dry ton and half of the total potential resource. Energy crops are a much smaller fraction of total available biomass at $40 per dry ton. Overall, energy crops become even more significant in the high-yield scenario—providing over half of the potential biomass at $60 per dry ton, the report lays out.

For the baseline, projected consumption of currently used resources, the forest residues and wastes, the agricultural residues and wastes, and energy crops show a total of 1094 million dry tons by 2030. This quantity increases by 400 million dry tons if most of the conventionally tilled acres shift into no-till cultivation, corn yields increase to a national average of about 265 bu./acre, and energy crop productivity increases 3% annually instead of 1% annually. The quantity decreases significantly as the roadside or farm gate price is decreased to $50 and $40 per dry ton (see figure).

The report did note though that "the large-scale deployment of energy crops could require the displacement of tens of millions of acres of cropland and pasture, especially under the high-yield scenario."

The 2011 Billion-Ton Update was produced in collaboration with the Energy Department's Oak Ridge and Idaho National Laboratories, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, The University of Tennessee, and other university and industry representatives.

To view the report and explore its data, which was analyzed at a local level - county-by-county - visit bioenergykdf.net/content/billiontonupdate.

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