Biomass as Feedstock for a Bioenergy and Bioproducts Industry

The Technical Feasibility of a Billion-Ton Annual Supply
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Executive Summary

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are both strongly committed to expanding the role of biomass as an energy source. In particular, they support biomass fuels and products as a way to reduce the need for oil and gas imports; to support the growth of agriculture, forestry, and rural economies; and to foster major new domestic industries — biorefineries — making a variety of fuels, chemicals, and other products. As part of this effort, the Biomass R&D Technical Advisory Committee, a panel established by the Congress to guide the future direction of federally funded biomass R&D, envisioned a 30 percent replacement of the current U.S. petroleum consumption with biofuels by 2030.

Biomass — all plant and plant-derived materials including animal manure, not just starch, sugar, oil crops already used for food and energy — has great potential to provide renewable energy for America’s future. Biomass recently surpassed hydropower as the largest domestic source of renewable energy and currently provides over 3 percent of the total energy consumption in the United States. In addition to the many benefits common to renewable energy, biomass is particularly attractive because it is the only current renewable source of liquid transportation fuel. This, of course, makes it invaluable in reducing oil imports — one of our most pressing energy needs. A key question, however, is how large a role could biomass play in responding to the nation’s energy demands. Assuming that economic and financial policies and advances in conversion technologies make biomass fuels and products more economically viable, could the biorefinery industry be large enough to have a significant impact on energy supply and oil imports? Any and all contributions are certainly needed, but would the biomass potential be sufficiently large to justify the necessary capital replacements in the fuels and automobile sectors?

The purpose of this report is to determine whether the land resources of the United States are capable of producing a sustainable supply of biomass sufficient to displace 30 percent or more of the country’s present petroleum consumption – the goal set by the Advisory Committee in their vision for biomass technologies. Accomplishing this goal would require approximately 1 billion dry tons of biomass feedstock per year.

The short answer to the question of whether that much biomass feedstock can be produced is yes. Looking at just forestland and agricultural land, the two largest potential biomass sources, this study found over 1.3 billion dry tons per year of biomass potential (Figure 1) — enough to produce biofuels to meet more than one-third of the current demand for transportation fuels. The full resource potential could be available roughly around mid-21st century when large-scale bioenergy and biorefinery industries are likely to exist. This annual potential is based on a more than seven-fold increase in production from the amount of biomass currently consumed for bioenergy and biobased products. About 368 million dry tons of sustainably removable biomass could be produced on forestlands, and about 998 million dry tons could come from agricultural lands.

Forestlands in the contiguous United States can produce 368 million dry tons annually. This projection includes 52 million dry tons of fuelwood harvested from forests, 145 million dry tons of residues from wood processing mills and pulp and paper mills, 47 million dry tons of urban wood residues including construction and demolition debris, 64 million dry tons of residues from logging and site clearing operations, and 60 million dry tons of biomass from fuel treatment operations to reduce fire hazards. All of these forest resources are sustainably available on an annual basis. For estimating the residue tonnage from logging and site clearing operations and fuel treatment thinnings, a number of important assumptions were made:

From agricultural lands, the United States can produce nearly 1 billion dry tons of biomass annually and still continue to meet food, feed, and export demands. This projection includes 428 million dry tons of annual crop residues, 377 million dry tons of perennial crops, 87 million dry tons of grains used for biofuels, and 106 million dry tons of animal manures, process residues, and other miscellaneous feedstocks. Important assumptions that were made include the following:

The biomass resource potential identified in this report can be produced with relatively modest changes in land use, and agricultural and forestry practices. This potential, however, should not be thought of as an upper limit. It is just one scenario based on a set of reasonable assumptions. Scientists in the Departments of Energy and Agriculture will explore more advanced scenarios that could further increase the amount of biomass available for bioenergy and biobased products.

  • all forestland areas not currently accessible by roads were excluded;
  • all environmentally sensitive areas were excluded;
  • equipment recovery limitations were considered; and
  • recoverable biomass was allocated into two utilization groups – conventional forest products and biomass for bioenergy and biobased products.
    • yields of corn, wheat, and other small grains were increased by 50 percent;
    • the residue-to-grain ratio for soybeans was increased to 2:1;
    • harvest technology was capable of recovering 75 percent of annual crop residues (when removal is sustainable);
    • all cropland was managed with no-till methods;
    • 55 million acres of cropland, idle cropland, and cropland pasture were dedicated to the production of perennial bioenergy crops;
    • all manure in excess of that which can applied on-farm for soil improvement under anticipated EPA restrictions was used for biofuel; and
    • all other available residues were utilized.
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