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Biomass board takes in-depth look at feedstocks

By Susanne Retka Schill
The Biomass Research and Development Board has taken an in-depth look at agricultural and forestry feedstocks for both conventional and advanced biofuels, with the goal of informing investors of the research and development needed to expand biofuel production. The economic analysis looked at several scenarios for different conventional biofuel production levels in 2016 and 2022, as well as several cellulosic ethanol production scenarios, forecasting a range of prices for bioenergy crops and residues from $40 to $60 per dry ton for biomass, depending on the scenarios.

The report also considered greenhouse gas (GHG) impacts but acknowledged the models used in the analysis didn't capture the full life-cycle impacts of increased biofuel production. "Carbon markets could be an effective approach to simultaneously increasing biofuels production and improving the GHG footprint of these fuels," the report said. A $25-per-metric-ton carbon dioxide equivalent that resulted in the largest decrease in GHG emissions was among the alternative scenarios analyzed. The report suggests three potentially fruitful research areas: raising crop productivity without additional fossil fuel inputs, reducing uncertainties in GHG emissions associated with nitrogen fertilizer use and upgrading the capabilities of the USDA's in-house economic models to analyze the GHG implications of various policies.

The report also discussed the consequences of bioenergy's economic, environmental and social sustainability. Because the models used to evaluate the feedstock scenarios were inadequate and not designed to provide information on variables that measure sustainability directly, the report recommended further research on sustainability, as well as research on a broad portfolio of feedstocks that offer geographic diversity and greater resilience.

The report, "Increasing Feedstock Production for Biofuels: Economic Drivers, Environmental Implications and the Role of Research," is one of a series of initiatives detailed in the interagency action plan unveiled by the Biomass Research and Development Board in October. The board, cochaired by officials from the USDA and U.S. DOE, coordinates the efforts of nine federal agencies and two executive-branch offices in advancing the research and development of biobased products and bioenergy. The 137-page report is available at www.brdisolutions.com.