Billion Ton Update

For anyone stalking data on renewable energy feedstock, there’s a useful resource worth investing some time with: The U.S. Billion-Ton Update.

The study scouts out current and potential feedstock production on a county-by-county basis to evaluate whether the country will have the raw material needed to meet its bioenergy goals by 2030.

The study concluded that there is enough biomass under its baseline assumptions  to meet near- and long-term goals. Under the high-yield scenario, even more ambitious goals may be feasible, according to the Department of Energy. The updated report also took into consideration environmental sustainability, and it identified likely costs to access these resources.

In addition to the 2011 report, the Department of Energy provides updated information and research on its companion web-based tool called the Bioenergy Knowledge Discovery Framework. Using the research data and mapping tools, policymakers, industry interests, or the general public can, for example, explore feedstocks available county by county, map biorefinery locations in each state, or look at the biomass sources projected for the future.

“We get about 100 hits a day on the Knowledge Discovery Framework,” said Mark Downing of DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, one of the contributors to the study released last summer. “The people who are using it (the datamap) are university researchers, biorefinery developers, public officials, workers at utilities and state energy offices.

“Staffers at the state and federal level pick it up and say, ‘What should I be doing at home to capitalize on what’s in the report? What’s in it for my constituency? And what is my state’s contribution to the billion tons of feedstock available?’”

The report and data in the Knowledge Discovery Framework present a plethora of information about all the major and secondary agricultural feedstocks and energy crops specifically grown for bioenergy. “Are there a billion tons of feedstock available? We can tell you where it is and how much it costs and there’s probably morethan a billion tons, and that’s cool,” said Downing, who heads up the Bioenergy Resource and Engineering Systems Group in the Environmental Sciences Division at the national lab.

The original Billion-Ton Report was done in 2005 by Oak Ridge lab researchers to find out if U.S. agriculture and forest resources have the capability of producing one billion dry tons of biomass annually without significantly affecting essential production of food, feed, and wood. A billion tons was the target estimated to replace about 30 per cent of the country’s current demand for transportation fuels with biofuels by 2030. The 2005 report concluded the answer was “Yes,” and buttressed its conclusions adequately, but left some gaps.

“If you look at the first report, one of the first things you notice is that there are no prices,” Downing said. “It told us what feedstocks are available but not the cost.” So “Son of Billion-Ton,” as the update has been called, reported on costs as well. Also, the spatial scale went much finer, with data for each of the country’s approximately 3,100 counties.

The researchers chose $60 per dry ton as the cost figure, which some have challenged since the report appeared. At the time, the reasoning was that the number represented an array of feedstocks, was comparable to the Department of Energy cost targets for cellulosic feedstocks, and represented a realistic price for discussion purposes.

"The Billion Ton Is Never Done"

“Research is never done, so you are always going back and refining your estimates. We are going back to something above $60 a ton,” Downing said. In addition, next time around, algae and other potential new feedstocks will be included, he said. “The Billion-Ton is never done.”

Meanwhile, the study unearthed the interes ing reality that primary forest biomass (that is, logging, fuel treatment operations, and land clearing) is currently the nation’s “single largest source of feedstock.” However, the report also notes that “the (forest) resources potential does not increase much over time...” Rather, the report notes, the future growth in biomass supplies lies with agricultural resources, particularly in dedicated energy crops, “with the quantity increasing significantly over time.”

“By 2030, quantities increase to 160 million dry tons at the lowest simulated price ($40 per dry ton) to 664 million dry tons at the highest simulated price ($60 per dry ton).

At prices about $50 per dry ton, energy crops become the dominant resource after 2022.”

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