EPA, NREL develop Web-based biopower mapping application

By Anna Austin
Posted October 1, 2009, at 9:16 a.m. CST

With funding from the U.S. EPA's Blue Skyways Collaborative, the U.S. DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., has developed a Web-based, interactive geospatial application that allows users to view biomass resources, infrastructure and other relevant information, as well as query specific data and conduct initial screening analyses.

Users can select a location on the map, quantify the biomass resources available within a user-defined radius, and then estimate the total thermal energy or power that could be generated by recovering a specific portion of that biomass. While the tool is useful in refining the prospecting process of site identification, it should not replace the need for an on-site biomass evaluation, according to Anelia Milbrandt, NREL senior energy resources analyst.

The tool took about a year to develop, and was made available in August. Biomass resource data are based on an assessment performed by NREL in 2005, which was updated prior to the release of the application. Infrastructure and other pertinent data were provided by the EPA, USDA and other agencies.

The impetus behind creating the biopower tool was the EPA's desire to combine past biomass resource assessments and data into a user-friendly, interactive, and web-accessible format rather than just in written reports or static maps, according to Mildbrandt. "There are maps of resources in the U.S. by county, or tables of data by county, but no way for people to get at the data behind the pictures," she said.

Scott Haase, NREL project leader, described the tool as an interactive spatial application based on the Google Earth platform, but relevant to the biopower industry and many others. "One can place point anywhere on the map, select a radius of their choice, calculate the biomass resources in that radius, and it analyzes how much power you might be able to produce based on the availability of those resources and the efficiency of your conversion technology," he said.

Feedstock data on the application include crop residue, forest residue, primary and secondary mill residue, urban wood waste, methane emissions from landfills, wastewater treatment and animal manure. Each layer is represented by a different color-for example, yellow to brown is crop residue, and different feedstocks or layers can be turned off or on for simultaneous viewing in an overlying format. It also possesses other layers such as power plants, alternative fueling stations, biodigesters and brownfield sites.

"We have a lot of ideas for future work, and have received some additional funds from the DOE to extend the tool to provide some additional functionality and new data sets," Milbrandt said. "We're heavily relying on feedback from users."

NREL anticipates utilities, policymakers, the general public, and those working on financing and project development will use the tool as an initial screen to determine where there are large quantities of a certain type of feedstock, and to find out the potential amount of electricity or thermal energy that could be produced from that feedstock. "It doesn't necessarily mean you can go to that area and secure all of that feedstock, because we don't know what the current market situation is in that particular location," Haase pointed out. The tool would, however, allow a project developer to narrow many possible sites down to a few based on the criteria entered into the application. The developer can then conduct detailed resource and market assessments in the most promising locations.

Depending on funding, NREL will continue to improve the tool. "Ideally, we'd like to add more layers, such as pellet mills, and we don't have all the biomass power plants (only members of the Biomass Power Association)," Haase said. "Also, we don't have all of the saw mills or pulp and paper mills with cogeneration plants; we don't have a lot of smaller, stand-alone plants, or any of the thermal-only energy projects. For instance, NREL has a wood-fired boiler that provides heat for our campus, and there are number of these systems around the country, but a single database for these projects does not exist. We'd like to put that layer in there for people that are looking at commercial-scale wood heating projects in their region."

Milbrandt said NREL also would like to compile generalized summaries for policymakers so they know the overall biopower potential of their states or legislative districts. "Hopefully, with additional funding, we could have that available next year," she said.

To access the tool, go to