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Billion-Ton Update authors discuss report findings

By Anna Simet | July 21, 2016

Algae as a biomass crop has great potential but is currently cost prohibitive.

The use of energy crops like miscanthus and switchgrass has slowed in recent years but is poised for intense growth.

The U.S. maintains the capability to produce over 1 billion tons of renewable biomass each year.

The aforementioned are some conclusions of the recently released, 448-page 2016 Billion-Ton Update, a second follow-up to the original 2005 Billion-Ton Study that examines the technical feasibility of a billion-ton annual biomass supply chain by 2040. On July 19, the Environmental and Energy Study Institute held a briefing to discuss the update, its methodology and data collection strategies, findings and goals.

Opening the briefing was Alison Goss Eng, program manager at the U.S. DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, who discussed the history of the initiative and the evolution of the report over the past 11 years, and added details of each update.

“We feel confident there is enormous U.S potential to produce biomass, on the order of more than a billion tons annually,” she said. “Every time we do this analysis, we get more confident in this number.”

Goss Eng said the DOE believes the work supports biomass energy commercialization in many ways. “We hear from stakeholders that they get increased confidence from investors, as well as technology developers, that they’re able to dig into the analysis and look into an individual region and what the potential to produce biomass, for multiple end-uses.”

Goss Eng emphasized the report’s focus on sustainable production and how it was taken into account in biomass estimates while evaluating its economic availability, how much is generated and current demand, as well more detailed cost estimates. “The analysis is end-use agnostic….but this time, we did look into the cost associated from the farm to the biorefinery,” she said, adding that the latest update also includes algae for the first time, and looks individually at 30 dedicated energy crops and other feedstocks, including miscanthus, switchgrass, energy cane and eucalyptus.

One of the key messages that the report’s authors want to convey, Goss Eng said, is that it is policy agnostic. “It does not evaluate the potential of new policies that may come online, and it’s also not specific to any given end-use,” she said. She also pointed out that the estimated billion-ton-plus number takes into account all of the current and projected needs for the forestry and fiber industries before additional potential was added. “We’re making sure we’re prioritizing existing uses,” she said.

The report uses $60 per ton as the estimated average cost of biomass during the 2040 timeframe and forecasts that miscanthus, switchgrass and corn stover will be dominant feedstocks then, and will be “significant leaders in the mix as we move forward,” Gos Eng said.

On how the 2016 report relates to the 2011 report, Goss Eng said they are very similar, through the 2030 timeframe is where the 2011 report ended, and the 2016 report extends through 2040. In terms of the biomass availability number, the difference is only about 20,000 tons, she said. There were also some differences in the amount of biomass currently used—the 2016 reports an 11 percent increase in currently used biomass, and a 19 percent drop in the use of energy crops. “The five years between the two reports didn’t see the uptick in energy crop production that we anticipated happening,” Goss Eng said, adding that more waste feedstocks are being used in 2016, but forestry resources used are “incredibly similar.”

Though energy crop use has lagged, Goss Eng said it’s expected they are “where a lot of the action will happen up to 2040…there will be greater demand and market pull, much more in 2040 than today, which is almost negligible.”  She went on to discuss some of the study’s key conclusions, which includes that up to half of the potentially available biomass identified can be produced or delivered at less than $84 per dry ton, or roughly the equivalent of $3 or less per gallon of gasoline, “which is the goal of our office,” she said.

Another of the key conclusions was that algae has substantial potential as a biomass feedstock, but Goss Eng said that currently “it’s very expensive….costs need to be brought down.”

Valerie Reed, senior advisor of bioenergy at the USDA Office of the Chief Scientist, and Harry Baumes, director of the USDA Office of Energy Policy and New Uses, also presented during the briefing. A recording the event, as well as slides, can be accessed here.