Conference focuses on energy from biomass, waste

By Ron Kotrba
Web exclusive posted Oct. 15, 2008 at 5:18 p.m. CST

The second annual Energy from Biomass and Waste Exposition & Conference kicked off Oct. 14 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh. Opening remarks by Ines Freesen, managing director of Freesen & Partner GmbH, and Jerry Hatfield, director of USDA's National Soil Tilth Laboratory, focused on the impact climate change has on agriculture and biomass production.

"Biomass production is directly related to climatic resources," said Hatfield, who stressed three crucial points to consider. The first was that, certainly, climate is changing. Secondly, Hatfield iterated climate change impacts agriculture. Thirdly, he said climate change impacts all sectors of energy from biomass.

Hatfield said regardless of whether one believes climate is changing as a result of human activity, natural occurrences or a combination of both – it's changing. "The past is not going to be a guide to the future when it comes to some of the climate change scenarios," Hatfield said. "We are in uncharted territories when it comes to temperatures, precipitation, and even solar radiation – those three things we use to produce biomass on the ground out there…also changing is the net distribution of climate change – it is not equal across the United States."

Precipitation in the upper Midwest has been extremely variable and Hatfield said that unpredictability will be even greater as we move into the future. "And another piece of puzzle is nighttime temperatures are increasing more than daylight temperatures," Hatfield said. He pointed out that the latest edition of the plant hardiness map shows that all the zones shifted at least 60 to100 miles northward, and most everyone looks at that to find out what plants to place where. "This is a shocking example to how a simple parameter like temperature can change [things]," he said. "It doesn't mean we're going to grow oranges in Illinois and Iowa, but it has tremendous implications."

Hatfield said warmer temperatures may make plants grow quicker but that doesn't mean they'll grow bigger. "We may not be able to see the same amount of production from the same unit of temperature out there," he said. "Warm temperatures also increase water use by plants – the warmer it is, the more water they use." This brings up another very interesting and critical point: reliable precipitation.

"We need more reliable rainfall to be able to avoid water stress," Hatfield said. "Flowering plants can flower earlier in the spring and the probability of frost hasn't changed in any of this, so we may find we have more frost damage and impact on our trees."

"Plants love carbon dioxide, they are the beneficiaries of all this rising carbon dioxide we're putting in the atmosphere – it increases their growth, water efficiency, it partially offsets impact of temperature," he said. "Carbon dioxide in itself is a positive thing. Temperature by itself is a very negative thing. Together they sort of balance each other out."

The real wildcard in climate change is precipitation. "Our agriculture system is built on reliable amounts of precipitation, and when we begin to change, how much water we have and when we have it in the season can have very negative impacts. Our soils have to be in the condition to be able to survive and store water from precipitation from the more intense storms that are there," Hatfield said. For example, he added, the Midwest this past summer saw extreme flooding. "Those conditions may become more of the norm rather than the exception, so think about the implications from that perspective," Hatfield said. "If you really think about all the different impacts on agriculture – where and how we grow plants – it's all dependent on the climatic resources we have in a particular place, and this brings me to that third point on energy production from biomass."

To achieve high-yield biomass production requires a combination of good climate and soil resources together. "More carbon dioxide means we tend to grow plants quicker but it doesn't' take up the nitrogen out of the soil at the same rate as it's growing, so we tend to have less protein, we tend to have a different constituency of whole plant material – either lignin or cellulose – coming out of that," Hatfield said. "So we need to think about the whole process of changing climate, and how that is going to change the quality of product that's growing out there. The final piece of that is how we're going to adapt and manage the different extremes we're going through. We need to have stability in production and we need to have reliability in that production from location to location."

It's for all of these reasons that the USDA, agricultural research service, natural research service and the forest service are all compelled to sponsor events like the Energy from Biomass and Waste Exposition & Conference. "Because we all have a stake in this issue relative to biomass production," he said. "Climate is changing, it does impact on agriculture, and it is going to impact how we produce biomass."

Robert Wallace, associate director of the Biomass Energy Center, said the reason most corporations are looking into bioenergy is because their consumers demand to see a sustainable portfolio. Despite a significant drop in oil prices recently, Wallace said, "This fall is rolling for bioenergy. With oil dropping as low as it is again now – and I never thought I would see it this low again – I don't think it really matters now. I think that the sustainability ball and the idea of where we can go with renewables, and we do have a limited amount of fossil fuels left, that ball is rolling and because of the people who are standing in this building, pushing forward the idea of where we need to be."