Biomass Utilization, Rain Forests and Their Effect on the U.S. Carbon Footprint

By Bruce Folkedahl
Biomass for heat, power and fuels is certainly not without its challenges. Recent editorials by Bruce Dale1 have illustrated the hypocrisy through which biofuels are being held to much higher standards than traditional fuels when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions.

The issue that carries the most damaging effect on the carbon footprint of the production of biofuels is indirect land-use change. This is essentially a method of accounting for increased greenhouse gas emissions from the supposed increase in agricultural lands to offset the amount of agricultural lands utilized in biomass for biofuels production. The theory goes that if 1,000 acres of corn previously used for food is now going to biofuels production, then 1,000 acres of new agricultural lands, such as clearing rain forests for agriculture, will be brought into production.

In the U.S., utilizing nonfood-producing lands such as underutilized agricultural land or commercial forest is a way to increase and sustain biofuel production without sacrificing fertile food producing croplands or destroying rain forests. Agricultural residues that are not necessary for nutrient replenishment in the soil become sensible nonfood feedstocks for biofuels and products.

In the forested areas of the U.S., much of the market for wood has been for pulp and paper which, like many U.S. industries, is being diminished due to products from overseas. This leaves behind a huge infrastructure devoted to sustaining the planting, growth, harvesting, transport and processing of wood in these areas. The utilization of this biomass infrastructure in the near future to produce biobased fuels and products can save the jobs that are currently disappearing with the pulp and paper industry. In areas that retain a healthy forest industry, the residues associated with the various wood-processing industries are a valuable source of biomass resources that can add revenue to ever-decreasing profit margins in mature industries.
Studies have shown that, currently, the U.S. harvests less wood than the annual growth rate of the forested lands, leaving room for managed removal for production of biofuels without negatively affecting the overall resource. Parts of the eastern U.S. are already taking advantage of this forest industry infrastructure and are providing wood chips for domestic cofiring facilities and wood pellets for the international markets.

The Energy & Environmental Research Center is working with several organizations that are currently exploring the opportunity of converting wood or nonfood agricultural grasses and residues to biofuels. There are multiple avenues to biofuels production such as gasification of woody biomass and catalytic conversion of the resultant syngas to alcohols, green diesel, or biocrude liquids that can be further refined.

The technology that makes the most sense for a given location will depend on particular market conditions, and the EERC has been helping clients to understand these nuances and further develop the technology that is the most economically viable for a given situation. At this time, however, technology is not the primary challenge-the source of the feedstock is the challenge. Let's hope that common sense will rule the day, and we can continue to harvest sustainable nonfood biomass feedstocks to enable the U.S. to reduce its overall carbon footprint. BIO

Bruce Folkedahl is a senior research manager at the EERC. Reach him at or (701) 777-5243.

1. Dale, B. Biofuels, Bioprod. Bioref. 2009, 3, 1–2.