DOE eyes 1B tons annually to displace fossil fuels

Source: Brittany Patterson, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, July 21, 2016

By 2040, the United States could feasibly use 1 billion tons of biomass to replace more than 30 percent of the country’s petroleum consumption, according to a recent U.S. Department of Energy report.

Third in a series of national assessments on the potential of biomass, the “2016 Billion-Ton Report” found materials ranging from agricultural waste, algae, tree trimmings and even cooking fat could be refined and used for biofuels, energy and other products.

“In the course of doing this analysis, we really feel confident there is enormous U.S. potential to use biomass on the order of 1 billion tons annually,” said Alison Goss Eng, program manager with the Bioenergy Technologies Office at DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

Speaking at an Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) briefing held on Capitol Hill yesterday, Eng, who called the report “policy agnostic,” said one focus of the 2016 update was to dive deeper into the cost of bringing biomass to biorefineries and cultivating it on the ground. For the first time, algae, municipal solid waste and energy crops such as eucalyptus and energy cane were also included.

A second volume is due by the end of the year and will focus on sustainability, including a chapter devoted to climate change, she said.

The report looked at a range of economic analyses. At $60 per ton, for example, it found the supply of biomass could range anywhere from 1.2 billion to 1.5 billion tons in just under 25 years.

Hitting the 1-billion-ton mark could have big impacts on the economy, said Valerie Reed, senior adviser on bioenergy with the Office of the Chief Scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

A robust “bioeconomy” could bring in 1.1 million jobs and an annual greenhouse gas emissions savings of 400 million tons, she said.

There are challenges for the biomass industry if it wants to close the gap. Currently, about 400 million tons of biomass are produced annually in the country, according to Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which was a co-lead author on the report.

“For example, bringing the costs down on fuels and asking, ‘What are some of the technical advances that we need?'” Reed said. “Do we need a ‘Hail Mary’-type technology or will slow and steady biotechnology continue developing?”

Financiers are also still nervous when it comes to bioenergy projects, she said.

Many stakeholders would also like to see federal policy signals for biomass.

Policy signals would help on the market side of things, said Harry Baumes, director of the Office of Energy Policy and New Uses at USDA.

“It’s the chicken-and-egg problem right now,” he said. “We don’t have the facilities in place demanding energy crops, but also the economics with relatively high crop prices at least a couple years ago made it much more difficult for farmers to say, ‘I want to produce energy crops.'”

Julie Tucker, the national lead for renewable wood energy with the Forest Service, praised the report but asked the panelists, after concluding the country could utilize more biomass, whether DOE had plans to help biomass producers with very low-value products.

For example, in the course of doing forest maintenance work, the Forest Service is left with lots of tree trimmings and woody bits that are so low in value — $30 to $40 a ton, far less than the $60 estimate DOE suggested — it is often more cost-effective to burn them rather than refine them into other products, she said.

“What a great opportunity to generate local heating, cooling, electricity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions especially from long-term perspective and permanently for the sites that then switch over to wood energy to get us off fossil fuels,” she said. “What we need is really a deeper analysis where there are better markets for us to focus.”