Biomass supplies make switch from food-based feedstocks possible — report

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, October 16, 2012

There is more than enough available U.S. biomass to sustainably produce advanced biofuels on the scale of what the federal renewable fuel standard requires, the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists says in a new study.

Relying on data from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the group concludes that the country could have 680 million dry tons of biomass potentially available by 2030 for use in fuel and electricity. That would be enough biomass to produce more than 54 billion gallons of advanced biofuels or 732 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity.

“I think it answers this basic question, which is how much cellulosic biofuel is realistic?” said Jeremy Martin, a senior scientist at UCS and author of the study released Thursday. “And frankly, the answer is that we’re not going to run out of biomass in the next decade.”

The biomass in the study includes agricultural residues like corn stover, perennial grasses and municipal solid waste. In general, they are feedstocks that are more widely available than corn, which has up until now been the primary feedstock for ethanol. The study did not include whole trees because of uncertainty surrounding their emissions benefits.

UCS relied on data produced by researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s “Billion-Ton Study,” a project to determine whether there was a billion tons of biomass available for bioenergy.

Martin, however, said UCS used stricter criteria to take into account environmental safeguards and focus on sustainability. For example, UCS raised the standards for corn stover above what the national lab used to take into account erosion and the fertility of the soil.

The result is that the 680 million gallons of biomass available is 12 percent less than the moderate levels ORNL researchers came up with last year.

Still, that is enough to meet the renewable fuel standard, which requires 36 billion gallons of biofuel production by 2022, with about half coming from sources other than traditional corn ethanol.

“There’s no barrier here in terms of availability of biomass,” Martin said. “But we won’t be able to hit these kinds of numbers right away” because of the challenges in scaling up cellulosic technology.

Martin said that the renewable fuel standard will continue to be key to shifting away from food-based biofuels. The standard has come under fire over the past several months as the drought has turned attention to rising corn prices, which critics blame on the expanded production of corn ethanol.

In comments submitted Thursday in response to several requests to waive the corn ethanol portion of the standard, the Union of Concerned Scientists said it remained a supporter of the RFS and advocated for only a partial waiver that would reduce next year’s corn ethanol requirements approximately 15 percent, from 13.8 billion to 12 billion gallons.

In general, carry-over fuel credits and other flexibilities built into the renewable fuel standard keep it a viable policy, Martin said.

“The framework is actually more flexible than folks recognize and continues to make sense in the current context,” Martin said. “Our thought is we should deliver on the goals of the RFS and take advantage of the flexibility that’s built into it. It’s not the time to stop everything and start over.”