Opportunity is Knocking

By Tim Portz
Two policy discussions currently underway in our nation's capitol will have significant implications for the biomass industry. The first, the renewable electricity standard included in first drafts of the American Clean Energy and Security Act, is a clear winner for our industry. The second, the rulemaking surrounding the renewable fuels standard enacted in the 2007 Energy Bill, has the potential to be incredibly disruptive.

It is easy to see that a renewable electricity standard would be a welcome piece of legislation. Requiring 25 percent of the electricity available in the grid come from renewable sources is in many ways a biomass power mandate. When utilities are required to generate significant amounts of power renewably, they will ultimately turn to biomass. Biomass is widely distributed across this country, employs many people in its collection and handling, generates base-load quality power, and is relatively benign from a carbon perspective.

The rulemaking surrounding the renewable fuels standard is a much more complicated situation, and the potential is there for it to significantly disrupt the largest biomass-to-liquid-fuels industry ever built. In question is indirect land-use change and whether deforestation in other parts of the world can be directly attributed to increased corn plantings to satisfy demand from ethanol producers. Some models, when including indirect land-use change, show corn ethanol as slightly more carbon intense than gasoline. Considering this, it's not impossible to envision a time when corn ethanol finds itself the odd fuel out.

Rightfully, the outcries and protests have already begun. U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., has introduced a bill that would heavily scrutinize the U.S. EPA's indirect land-use models and potentially prevent them from being used at all.

The most interesting aspect of Thune's bill, and one that could provide a new opportunity for our industry, is the portion of the bill that allows ethanol producers to apply for an individualized carbon score if they prove they have a production system with a lower carbon density. Utilizing biomass to satisfy the thermal requirements of an ethanol facility or using corn fertilized with biomass-derived ammonia would significantly reduce the carbon score at ethanol facilities employing these technologies.

Biomass heat, power and fertilizers are all less carbon dense than their fossil fuel counterparts and corn ethanol may be the first industry to call upon biomass to reduce its carbon footprint. I doubt, however, that it will be the last.

Tim Portz is a business developer with BBI International's Community Initiative to Improve Energy Sustainability. Reach him at tportz@bbiinternational.com or (651) 398-9154.