Biomass '09 Workshop Highlights the State of Biomass in the US

By Chris Zygarlicke
The recent Biomass '09: Power, Fuels, and Chemicals Workshop, held July 14-15 in Grand Forks, N.D., highlighted the state of biomass in the U.S. Although the two-day event wasn't intended to give concrete answers for every pathway out there for marketable biomass technologies, it put a spotlight on the future of biomass. (see "Biomass' Role in the Energy Future" on page 42 for more conference coverage)

One message that wove its way through the workshop was that U.S. history books will mark this current age as one of opportunity for biofuels and bioenergy. Whether these opportunities turn into profitable commercial ventures or fizzle as poor business decisions is still being written. Success will depend on policy, incentives, the development of sustainable biomass feedstocks and, finally, proving new conversion technologies in near-commercial-scale biorefineries and bioenergy systems.

Laws and money are driving factors for biomass. Legislation for carbon cap and trade, renewable fuel mandates, renewable portfolio standards and tax incentives for bioenergy and biofuels have never been closer to becoming a reality. Likewise, research dollars and financial incentives, intensified by an influx of economic stimulus dollars under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, are at an all-time high for developing and implementing new technologies and to grow, harvest, and convert biomass to transportation fuels, heat and electricity.

For biomass-based renewable liquid fuels alone, more than 20 multimillion-dollar federally funded projects have been awarded over the past two years. By about 2012, these projects must prove or disprove the technical and economic viability of producing ethanol or green diesel. Updates from Abengoa Bioenergy and Poet LLC on converting wheat straw, milo, switchgrass, corn stover, corn fiber, and other biomass cellulose to ethanol corroborate this 2012 goal. In the next three to four years, there will be answers concerning the reality of producing significant biofuels in the U.S. The bottom line is that biobased fuels will need a production cost that competes with corn ethanol, perhaps requiring other financial incentives or subsidies.

Timothy Baye from the University of Wisconsin made it clear that cellulose biomass is on track to be a commodity that can be brokered. Projects must consider locally available biomass feedstocks and a conversion process that is flexible for feedstock type and quality.

Looking ahead, new oil-bearing nonfood crops such as crambe, camelina, cuphea, jatropha and algae appear to be likely resources for liquid biofuels, as described by Paul Pansegrau from the EERC. J.R. Aspinwall from Midwest Research Institute described a pilot project in Florida whereby open-pond algae is grown and harvested to produce liquid biofuels. David Haberman from IF LLC, agreed that algae is potentially a great untapped fuel resource, but reminded attendees that genetic modifications of algae could create strains that threaten sensitive ecosystems and that only naturally occurring strains should be used.

Several utilities presented at the workshop, including Xcel Energy and Great River Energy, and it was clear that a massive resurgence is underway to develop strategies and technologies to cofire biomass residues in coal-fired utility boilers.

In summary, cellulose biomass may become a viable piece of the U.S. energy security puzzle. It meets carbon dioxide emission and life-cycle targets, is sustainable, has growing incentives and support, has an established window for demonstration of viable technologies for production and conversion, and is garnering significant business investment. We can finally state with a degree of certainty that the bioenergy business is about three to four years away from demonstrated economic and technical proof. This is truly a historic time for biomass.

Chris Zygarlicke is a deputy associate director for research at the EERC Reach him at [email protected] or (701) 777-5123.