Biomass Resources in the United States: More Biomass Than You Can Shake a Stick At

October 25, 2012 | 8:59 am
Jeremy Martin
Senior Scientist and Director of Fuels Policy

The internet has made it possible to answer questions faster than you can ask them. For instance, it took me all of 10 seconds to discover there 953 other Jeremy Martins in this country. There are also, I was shocked to see, nearly 1,000 James Bonds, making the country a much more hazardous place for international criminals than I’d previously imagined.

In the age of information overload, often the trick is to find ways of synthesizing data in a way that is helpful and useful. We at UCS would like to think that’s something we’re pretty good at. Last month I completed The Promise of Biomass: Clean Power and Fuel – If Handled Right, a comprehensive assessment of biomass resources in the United States available for sustainable use for clean power and fuel development.

Including sustainability criteria is what sets my assessment apart from those of other experts and agencies. When talking about biomass, it’s important to focus on the right kind of resources, and the scale at which they can be utilized that balances energy and environmental prerogatives.

Lots of potential for biomass

The bottom line of our research: By 2030, nearly 680 million tons of biomass could be made available for fuel and electricity. That is enough to make 54 billion gallons of non-food, cellulosic ethanol, quadruple the amount of corn ethanol produced in this country in 2010. If we use it to make electricity, it could meet about one-fifth of nationwide demand. However you slice it, those numbers suggest biomass resources could make a real contribution towards cutting oil use as laid out in our Half the Oil Plan.

But we have all learned the hard way that bioenergy production can impact food production and forests, so smart bioenergy development must happen in the context of our food production system, our land and water resources, the needs of wildlife, and other benefits incurred from naturally functioning ecosystems. We were very careful to consider this context when developing our assessment.

Making biomass into biofuel

In the months ahead, the EPA will, as it does every year, go through the process of setting volume levels under the Renewable Fuel Standard. And also as in past years, it is a disappointing reality that the mandated volume for cellulosic biofuel will be far lower than the targets set by Congress.

The cellulosic biofuel industry has taken longer to reach commercial scale than the optimistic projections made in 2007 when the RFS passed, creating the need for the annual downward adjustments. But with a slew of commercial-scale facilities coming online between now and the end of 2015 , we are finally making the leap from research to refinery (see our map of cellulosic biorefinery projects across the country for a sense of the scale).

But even under the best of circumstances, cellulosic production will not reach the 16 billion gallons/year by 2022 as called out in the RFS. Ultimately these large targets are going to take a bit longer to hit, and the EPA will need to make adjustments to the mandates for the various types of biofuels defined by law to make sure the policy is grounded in reality.  When they do this, I hope they are not tempted to substitute food-based fuels — corn ethanol or vegetable oil based biodiesel — for truly advanced biomass-based biofuels.

photo: eXtension Farm Energy