Can the United States sustainably produce a billion tons of biomass, in addition to food, feed and fiber production each year? A new report from the Department of Energy’s Bioenergy Technology Office (BETO), says that yes, by 2040, the United States could actually get to 1.5 billion tons of sustainable biomass production, replacing more than 30 percent of domestic petroleum use and spurring the additional use of biomass as feedstocks for chemicals and biobased products.

On June 12, BETO released the 2016 Billion-Ton Report, detailing the future resource availability of biomass; USDA data formed the basis for the report’s forecasts. The report is the third in the series, the first Billion-Ton study came out in 2005 and was updated in 2011. This new report, BT16 for short, updates information in the previous report and includes several new interest areas. To learn more about the report, attend EESI’s upcoming Briefing “Building a Billion-Ton Bioeconomy."  

BT16, coming in at nearly 450 pages, is just volume one, and focuses on the economic potential for biomass in the United States and expands on previous reports to include new energy crops including algae and miscanthus, as well as expanded feedstock cost analysis. Volume two, which will focus on key sustainability criteria, is expected out by the end of this year.

Sustainably produced biomass has the potential to replace some fossil fuels in everyday use. Biomass can come from sources like agricultural products and residues, forestry residues, purpose grown crops, algae, and multiple waste streams. The benefits of ramping up diverse biomass feedstock production include reducing greenhouse gas emissions, reducing dependence on fossil fuel imports, reduction of waste through utilization of waste streams, and fostering a sustainable, diverse agricultural system. Rural economies also benefit from the increased demand for agricultural products.


Billion-Ton Report Conclusions

BT16 concludes that the United States has the potential to reach one billion tons of biomass for energy by 2030, assuming a price of $60 per dry ton at the “farmgate”, a result consistent with the first two editions. By 2040, under a high-yield scenario of 2 to 4 percent growth in feedstock yield per year, the United States could produce up to 1.5 billion tons of sustainable biomass, depending on feedstock prices. Currently, the United States produces 400 million tons annually, mostly in the form of corn for ethanol, as well as agricultural residues and various organic waste, woody biomass and landfill gas.

The new report builds on the previous editions by projecting availability out to 2040, while the second Billion-Ton Update (BT2), focused on 2012 to 2030. Though BT2 didn’t include the economic impacts from preprocessing, storage, and transportation of the biomass, BT16 has expanded its analysis to include these factors, giving a much clearer picture of the potential costs of feedstocks to the “farmgate” and to the biorefinery.

Another key change is the report factors in competition for these resources. This means that the demand for these products for food, lumber, and other uses is taken into account before quantifying the amount that can go to bioenergy. Including this information shows that biomass can be used sustainably without interfering with our food and fiber supply, which is a common concern.

Much of the data from the report is available on the website in an interactive format. People can see how future scenarios will change in different regions by changing future prices and yields to see how different types of biomass will be affected. This adds an impressive modeling element to BT16.


Energy Crops Now Key Players

BT16 includes a wider variety of biomass feedstocks in its analysis. One important new inclusion is energy crops, including algae. Including algae addresses one of the main criticisms of the previous reports. The report also contains several crops new to the report, including significantly expanded consideration of terrestrial energy crops such as eucalyptus, energy cane, and miscanthus, as well as municipal waste.

Several groups had previously commented on the algae omission in the BT2. Barry Cohen of the National Algae Association wrote, “How can the DOE take a survey of biomass available in 2030—with serious policy and public investment implications—without taking any view on algae?” Jim Lane of Biofuels Digest called ignoring algae the “key shortcoming” of the 2011 report.

The exclusion of algal biomass was so heavily discussed that it became the top “Frequently Asked Question” addressed by the study authors. The authors responded to the comments by saying that algal biomass was new enough that there wasn’t enough data for accurate projections. While the Department of Energy funded several algae-based projects, the BT2 authors said that they just weren’t as far along as the terrestrial biomass options, meaning any projections would have a much lower degree of certainty.

BT16 shows that algal biomass has the potential to be a significant part of the billion tons, accounting for somewhere between 10 and 15 million tons. While algae production, either terrestrially or offshore remains promising, key questions on water use, resource requirements and production remain. BT16 states there is the potential for up to 90 percent nutrient recycling in algal systems, additionally co-location of algal systems at power plants or other industrial facilities is promising.


Looking Forward: Data Quality, Sustainability Will Be Key

According to BT16, quality data remains key, and BETO will continue to work with USDA to continually develop datasets that make up the Billion-Ton assessment.  Future research areas include additional information on production costs, management treatments and yields for energy crops (such as algae and miscanthus).  

Additionally, for the first time BETO will also separately assess key sustainability criteria for feedstock production, with Volume two expected by the end of the year. The consideration of sustainability in the bioeconomy is key, to balance increased biomass production with other land use and ecosystem needs, including water quality, wildlife and food production.  Additionally, with increasing climate variability expected, the impact of drought, floods and other extreme events will need to be considered in the ability to sustainably produce biomass feedstocks and avoid competition with other land uses.



Author: Rebecca Chillrud


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