Mega Midwest Biomass Potential

A UCS report displays the tremendous potential for bioenergy development in the Midwest.
By Matt Soberg | September 20, 2011

A Union of Concerned Scientists report, “A Bright Future for the Heartland: Powering the Midwest Economy with Clean Energy,” analyzes the potential of the U.S. Midwest to utilize renewable energy with lofty goals through 2030. The report, published in July, predicts that, with careful management, biomass could play a significant role in the Midwest’s future power needs.

“The study viewed the Midwest as having significant economic opportunities by greatly expanding the renewable resources in its own backyard,” says Jeff Deyette, co-author of the report and senior energy analyst and assistant director of energy research and analysis with UCS. This region carries the most diverse renewable resources including biomass, wind and solar. 

Combining an abundance of natural resources with the region’s skilled workforce, manufacturing industry, transportation and infrastructure, “it all falls together for the Midwest to be an engine driven to a clean energy economy,” Deyette says. Although the region has already initiated a clean energy policy, the UCS report studied the effect of an expanded effort.

The UCS based its analysis on the energy goals of the Midwestern Governors Association, a nonprofit that includes 10 state governors, who promote agricultural, economic and energy policy. The MGA set policy recommendations for transitioning to a clean energy economy in 2009, referred to as the Energy Roadmap, calling for 30 percent of the Midwest’s electricity supply to come from renewables by 2030 (2 percent per year starting in 2015).

With significant biomass resources in the Midwest, the states could rely less on coal, most of which is imported to the region, resulting in major cost savings. “Biomass is the oldest renewable energy: humans have been burning it to make heat ever since we first learned how to build a fire. Until recently, biomass has also supplied far more renewable electricity—or biopower—than wind and solar combined,” according to the report. 

The report examined numerous biomass sources, including forest, crop and mill residues and planned/dedicated crops. The UCS analyzed various technologies including plants run solely on biomass, cofiring with coal, and combined heat and power. 

Biomass supplied more than 1,500 megawatts of generating capacity in the Midwest in 2009, which produced 0.9 percent of the region’s electricity, according to the report. The UCS stresses that, “the growth of biopower will depend on the availability of biomass resources; land use and harvesting practices; and the amount of biomass used to make fuel for transportation and other uses.”

The UCS used a modified version of the U.S. DOE’s National Energy Modeling System to model the future effect of renewable energy initiatives in the region. To discover the possibilities of the renewable energy targets set by the Energy Roadmap, USC modeled two scenarios labeled the core policy case and the alternative technology pathway. 

The core policy case relied on more pessimistic assumptions regarding biopower to reflect the alleged uncertainties and constraints that affect biomass facility development, including little available data for actual biomass costs, sufficient supply issues and government permitting, Deyette says. The alternative technology pathway assumed that some of the constraints could be overcome leading to lower costs and better biopower performance.

The report assumed that 367 million tons of biomass would be available nationally for both power and biofuel industries with 47 percent of the biomass coming from the Midwest. Of that, nearly three-quarters of Midwestern biomass would be from agricultural residues.

The report stressed other important benefits of expanding renewable energy, including the creation of 85,700 new jobs and nearly $41 billion in new capital investments. By following the Energy Roadmap, the region’s occupants would save $42 billion on their electric and natural gas bills by 2030.

Midwest farmers and landowners could earn $1 billion in new income, in part, by biomass production. Large facilities could be situated in rural areas close to feedstocks.

Greenhouse gas emissions from power plants would be reduced by 130 metric tons annually by 2030 if MGA initiatives are followed.

To take advantage of the biomass opportunities in the Midwest, the UCS recommends the region promote a sustainable biomass supply system. The solution would arise from developing sustainability guidelines, best management practices, funding biomass research and regional strategies to develop technology. Deyette says that each state benefits individually from expanding the renewable energy industry, but the region as a whole would benefit even more through collaboration.

—Matt Soberg