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Son of Billion Ton: The 10-minute version

| August 11, 2011

Does  the 180 page Billion Ton Study update have you caught between a “must-read” rock and a “no-time” hard place?

Try our 10 minute version of the landmark biomass report.

In Tennessee, a research team led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory projected that the US would have between 1.1 and 1.6 billion tons of available, sustainable biomass for industrial bioprocessing by 2030. The finding was a highlight of the “2011 U.S. Billion-Ton Update: Biomass Supply for a Bioenergy and Bioproducts Industry”. The report is an update of a landmark 2005 study undertaken by the DOE and ORNL in 2005.

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 study provides industry, policymakers, and the agricultural community with county-level data and includes analysis of current U.S. feedstock capacity and the potential for growth in crops and agricultural products for clean energy applications.

According to the DOE, “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 10-minute Son of Billion Ton

In today’s Digest report, we present a ten-minute reading version of the Son of Billion Ton.

You can download the complete 180-page US Billion Ton Update here.

Key Shortcoming

Where’s algae? Microcrops as a platform rate exactly two mentions, one of which is to explain that algae is excluded from the study. Seriously, how can the US Department of Energy take on a survey of biomass available in 2030 – with serious policy and public investment implications — without taking a view on algae?

To many, algae remains an experimental, futuristic technology platform for producing biomass. But, then, consider that taking a peek at 2030 is serious futurism, no matter how you do it. That’s the same as looking at 2011 in 1992  - before, say, the World Wide Web, mobile networks, completion of the Human Genome Project, 9/11, or the global financial crisis of 2008.

Key Findings

Key finding #1: Plenty of feedstock to meet Renewable Fuel Standard goals through 2022

The “Son of Billion Ton” report states: “In 2022…the feedstock shown in the baseline scenario account for conventional biofuels (corn grain ethanol and biodiesel) and shows 602 million dry tons of potential resource at $60 per dry ton….this potential resource is more than sufficient to provide feedstock to produce the required 20 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuels.”

Key finding #2: 2005 was correct, not overblown

“Overall, results of this update are consistent with the 2005 BTS in terms of the magnitude of the resource potential.” Critics of the Billion Ton Study had pointed to a sunny level of optimism in terms of available feedstocks, and had suggested that the truer number was somewhere in the range of 600 million tons of feedstock,  by 2050.

Key Finding #3: Energy crops, baby

Dedicated energy crops are the way forward, producing as much as half the total biomass available by 2030. Volumes are highly impacted by price, with the $60 per ton figure teasing out three times as much energy crop biomass as a price of $40 per ton.

Key finding #4: Mixed prairie – death of a dream

As attractive as the idea is of using mixed prairie instead of dedicated mono crops, the study identifies the central weaknesses. First, the yields from low-input, high-diversity prairie are so low that the biorefineries become too small, or the biomass radius becomes unaffordably large. Two, the low yields require too much land, overall. According to the study, it would take nearly 600 million acres of LIHD prairie to produce a billion tons of biomass, compared to 110 million acres of hybrid switchgrass.

Differences between the 2005 Billion Ton study and 2011 Son of Billion Ton

2005 Billion Ton Study

• National estimates—no spatial information
• No cost analyses
• Environmental sustainability addressed from national perspective
• No explicit land-use change modeling
• 2005 USDA agricultural projections and 2000 forestry RPA/TPO
• Long-term time horizon (2025–2050)
• Estimates of current availability
• Long-term projections involving changes in crop productivity, crop tillage, residue collection efficiency, and land-use change

2011 Son of Billion Ton

• County-level analysis with aggregation to state, regional, and national levels
• County supply curves for major primary feedstocks
• Environmental sustainability modeled for residue removal
• 2009 USDA agricultural projections and 2007 forestry RPA/TPO 2012–2030 timeline
• Land-use change modeled for energy crops
• Annual projections based on a continuation of baseline trends (USDA projections)
• Annual projections based on changes in crop productivity, tillage, and land use

Current usage of biomass

From the report: “Biomass energy consumption (excluding biobased products) was reported at 184 million dry tons in the 2005 BTS. More than 50% of this consumption was estimated to be in the forest products industry, with equal amounts used in other processing industries, electric power generation, and the residential and commercial sectors. A relatively small fraction (less than 10%) was used to make biofuels. Based on the most recent EIA data, current biomass energy consumption is nearly 200 million dry tons, or 4% of total primary energy consumption.

“About 17% of this consumption is space heating in the residential and commercial sectors. The source of this biomass is nearly all fuelwood. The electric power sector represents a small percentage of total biomass consumption (8%) and uses a variety of biomass feedstocks—fuelwood, MSW biomass, MSW landfill gas, and biosolids (or sewage sludge).

In 2009, nearly 60% of biomass-derived electric power consumption was from MSW sources. Transportation accounts for 31% of total consumption, with ethanol used in gasoline blending accounting for most (90%) of the total. Biodiesel accounts for 8%, and the remainder is E85 (85% ethanol fuel) and other biomass liquids. The industrial sector accounts for 44% of total biomass energy consumption. Most of this amount (nearly 90%) is wood and waste wood. MSW, landfill gas, and biosolids account for the remainder.”

Yield increases

From the report: “One of the more controversial decisions that modelers of biomass have to take into account is the amount of yield increase, due to improved farming techniques and plant breeds. In the report, the study used “an average annual corn yield increase slightly more than 1% over the 20-year simulation period…Energy crop yields assume an annual increase of 1%.” The study also used a “high-yield scenario more closely aligned to the assumptions in the 2005 BTS, with a projected increase in corn yield averages almost 2% annually over the 20-year simulation period. The energy crop productivity increases are modeled at three levels—2%, 3%, and 4% annually. These gains are due not only to experience in planting energy crops, but also to more aggressive implementation of breeding and selection programs.”

The impact of price

From the report: “Up to 30 million acres of cropland and 49 million acres of pastureland shift into energy crops by 2030 at a simulated farmgate price of $60 per dry ton. At the lower simulated farmgate prices of $40 and $50 per dry ton, total land-use change is 33 and 44 million acres, respectively.

Why so high? The cost of producing energy crops, for one, and the market prices from competing uses, such as combustion of biomass for power generation.

From the report: Discounted average costs of production for perennial grasses are $52-$80 per dry ton in the Northeast; $43-$68 per dry ton in Appalachia; $42-$91 per dry ton in the Southeast ; $54-$89 per dry ton in the Delta; $53-$71 per dry ton in the Corn Belt; $70-$94 per dry ton in the Lake States. $47-$70 in the Northern and Southern Plains. Costs assume a discount rate of 6.5% and include all variable costs exclusive of land rent. Discounted average cost of production for annual energy crops range from $38 to $59 per dry ton.

Forest resources

From the report: “Over the estimated price range, quantities vary from about 33 to 119 million dry tons currently to about 35 to 129 million dry tons in 2030. Primary forest biomass (i.e., logging and fuel treatment operations and land clearing) is the single largest source of feedstock. The resource potential does not increase much over time given the standing inventory nature of the resource and how it is managed. Results also show that very little conventional pulpwood is available for bioenergy at prices below (about) $60 per dry ton.

“The agricultural resources show considerably more supply, with the quantity increasing significantly over time. This increase is due to yield growth, which makes more crop residue available. The increase is also attributed to the deployment of energy crops. Under current conditions, prospective biomass supplies range from about 59 million dry tons at a farmgate price of $40 per dry ton or less to 162 million dry tons at $60 per dry ton. The composition of this biomass is about two-thirds crop residue and one-third various agricultural processing residues and wastes.

“By 2030, quantities increase to 160 million dry tons at the lowest simulated price ($40 per dry ton) to 664 million dry tons at the highest simulated price ($60 per dry ton). At prices above $50 per dry ton, energy crops become the dominant resource after 2022.”

Agricultural residues and wastes

From the report: “Agricultural residues and wastes are about 244 million dry tons currently and increase to 404 million dry tons by 2030 at a farmgate price of $60 per dry ton. In 2022, the total agricultural resources (crop residues and energy crops) reach 910 million dry tons at the $60 price. Energy crops are the largest potential source of biomass feedstock, with potential energy crop supplies varying considerably depending on what is assumed about productivity. At a 2% annual growth rate, energy crop potential is 540 million dry tons by 2030 and 658 million dry tons if an annual increase in productivity of 3% is assumed. Increasing yield growth to 4% pushes the energy crop potential to nearly 800 million dry tons. Note that at the lowest simulated price of $40 per dry ton, however, the energy crop potential is only 69 million, 162 million, and 261 million dry tons in 2030 at 2%, 3%, and 4% annual yield, respectively. 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.”

Energy crops

From the report: “It is important to point out the significant role of energy crops. 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.”

Municipal Solid waste

From the report: “Currently, about 254 million tons of MSW are generated annually, with slightly more than one-third of this quantity recovered for recycling or composting (EPA, 2008). Another 13%, or 32 million tons, is combusted with energy recovered. Containers and packaging are the single largest component of MSW, totaling some 78 million tons, or 31%, of the total. Durable goods are the second largest portion, accounting for 25% of total MSW generated. Yard trimmings are the third largest portion and account for about 33 million tons, or 13%, of the total.”

Land-use change

From the report: “Under baseline assumptions, up to 22 million acres of cropland and 41 million acres of pastureland shift into energy crops by 2030 at a simulated farmgate price of $60 per dry ton. This land-use change is similar in magnitude to the 40 to 60 million acres in energy crops reported in the 2005 BTS.”

Risk mitigation: Sustainability, yield improvement challenges, solutions

From the report: “[Workshop] participants were asked to identify the environmental barriers, or “limiting factors,” constraining yield and possible solutions. Key considerations raised by participants included:

•    Implementing emerging concepts in management practices
•    Minimizing nitrogen use
•    Minimizing risk of new biomass crops becoming invasive or intercrossing
•    Developing improved carbon sequestration and methods for indirect monitoring of carbon accumulation in soil
•    Identifying ways to manage changes in land use for energy crop production with minimal soil carbon loss
•    Leveraging ecosystem services provided by perennial crops for environmental sustainability
•    Developing an integrated pest management (IPM) program for switchgrass and mixed perennial grasses
•    Developing management practices and technology for harvesting perennial energy crops.

Participants identified possible advances and approaches to overcoming these barriers, including:

•    New and improved varieties, lines, and families—molecular genetics and breeding methods for productivity, frost hardiness, and drought resistance
•    Improvement in vegetative propagation and nursery production and bridging the gap between genetic breeding and application
•    Germplasm development, genome sequencing, and QTL trait identification
•    APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) permitting, gene escape controls, and sterility
•    New silvicultural and stand improvement practices for weed control, nutrients, and harvesting
•    Developing better yield and economic models
•    Trials on coppice, multicrop, spacing, rotation length, nutrient efficiency, and carbon pools
•    Developing business cases, how-to guidelines, and decision tools for landowners.”

More discovery and analysis

The DOE’s Bioenergy Knowledge Discovery Framework (here) provides complementary and reference materials, as well as additional data and explanations. The website also provides tools to help present the results in custom tabular, graphic, and spatial formats, as it is impossible to provide this in a reasonable length report.

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