Success is in the Bioenergy Details

Is there anything the Biofuels Atlas can’t do?
| May 20, 2011

Say the word “location” three times and you’ve basically summed up the No. 1 factor that will allow a bioenergy project to succeed. Placing a facility in the best possible location is much more complex than finding a nice view or having the right neighbors. Typically, the first place to start in the location research process would involve allocating the availability of needed resources such as feedstock or infrastructure, but, if the theory holds that future success “is all in the details,” then knowing the availability of woody biomass in a 50-mile radius is only the first step down a very long road.

Kristi Moriarty, senior analyst for the Center for Transportation Technologies and Systems for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and her team at NREL have developed a map to get you there. Of course, the Biofuels Atlas developed by the NREL team can provide information on feedstock availability ranging from corn stover to forest residues, but the atlas, which is linked into Google Maps, and is a compilation of information (when available) from the U.S. DOE, the U.S. EPA and the USDA, can provide much greater detail.    

Want to know the flex-fuel vehicle density for an area around St. Louis? The atlas can tell you. Want to know the biofuels potential based on a specific feedstock in a specific collection radius? The atlas can provide that information. Or—and this is where the map is truly an asset to project developers—if a user wants to understand the energy demands of a particular state, how those energy users are receiving their energy (coal plants, oil refineries, ethanol plants, etc.) and how many gallons of biofuel could be created in that state given the availability of a feedstock like wheat straw or corn cobs, the atlas can do all of that too. If that isn’t enough, the map also provides information regarding state-by-state incentives and laws for energy along with the general energy capacity for each state.
“It gives you an idea of what may be possible,” Moriarity says. “When you are looking at a map like this, it really starts to highlight some opportunities.”

While the atlas is somewhat subject to the amount of funding the data sources receive throughout the year, the ability of the atlas to analyze and overlay a number of different aspects like rail lines, methane production sites or even nuclear power plants shows the benefit of the tool that to this point has already received 10,000 views, according to Moriarity. And, in 2012, the plan is to include dedicated energy crop acres on the map. So, hopefully by then, the atlas will provide even more data on available feedstock like the 50,000 acres the USDA has awarded under the Biomass Crop Assistance Program to Missouri and Kansas to establish native grasses and herbaceous plants specifically for bioenergy uses.  —Luke Geiver