A Billion-Ton Forecast

The "Billion Ton" biomass assessment conducted in 2005 was instrumental in accelerating the president's renewable fuels policies and ultimately spurring biomass research efforts, such as the U.S. DOE's "30x'30" initiative. With solid government backing, the report remains an integral reference point for policy-makers and industry leaders to base sound business decisions.
By Bryan Sims | June 05, 2007
Biomass experts had long awaited tangible evidence that would identify practical and economical methods to meet renewable fuel production demands using biomass. Before those methods could be identified, however, one question had to be addressed: Is there enough biomass produced in the United States to make a significant impact on U.S. fuel consumption?

In 2005, this question was answered in a federally sponsored report, jointly endorsed by the U.S. DOE and the USDA. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), in conjunction with the USDA Forest Service, the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) generated a report called the "Biomass as Feedstock for a Bioenergy and Bioproducts Industry: The Technical Feasibility of a Billion-Ton Annual Supply."

Commonly referred to as the "Billion Ton" study, the report was the impetus behind the 2006 DOE initiative coined "30x'30" and is a systematic approach to assessing the nation's goal of producing approximately 60 billion gallons of ethanol from biomass to replace 30 percent of the petroleum used for transportation fuel by 2030.

Tom Foust, biomass program technology manager for the NREL, the nation's primary laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development headquartered in Golden, Colo., believes that the Billion Ton study was critical in setting the standard for creating its blueprint of success within the industry. "I think what makes the [Billion Ton] study unique above other studies is that we brought in all the different people," says Foust, who was a major contributor to both the Billion Ton study and the 30x'30 initiative. "It was an open forum and everybody was allowed to contribute their ideas and concerns. Other studies just didn't provide the political buy-in that this study did."

Inside the Numbers
The short answer to the aforementioned question is yes. Looking at just forest and agricultural land alone—the two largest potential sources of biomass—the report found the potential for approximately 1.3 billion dry tons per year of biomass. That is more than enough to meet one-third of the current demand for fuels in the transportation sector well into the 21st century, when large-scale bioenergy and biorefinerey industries are likely to exist. The report observed that this long-term annual supply of biomass is about a sevenfold increase over the 200 million dry tons of biomass per year currently used, leaving the remaining 1.1 billion dry tons for future production of bioenergy and biobased products. The study involved all the lower 48 states, excluding Hawaii and Alaska.

"Our report answers several key questions," says Robert Perlack, lead author of the report and a research scientist at the ORNL's Environmental Division, a DOE-managed research and development facility headquartered in Oak Ridge, Tenn., that focuses on researching bioenergy efficiency and security in the country. "We wanted to know how large a role biomass could play, whether the United States had the land resources and whether such a plan would be economically viable," he says. "The study shows that there is a significant resource available to support a large-scale biorefinery industry."

According to the report, agriculture and forestry account for 79 percent of the total resource base and collectively could supply up to 15 percent of U.S. energy demand by 2030 without impeding food, feed and fiber production, assuming relatively modest changes in agricultural and forestry practices are met.

Agricultural areas account for approximately 46 percent of the entire land base in the United States. Of that land, 26 percent is considered grassland and 20 percent is classified as cropland. The report estimates that agricultural land can supply 998 million sustainable dry tons of biomass resources annually. In contrast, forestlands have the potential to contribute an estimated 33 percent of land acreage and approximately 367 million tons of biomass per year.

Forest residues were one of the main components of the research, according to Bryce Stokes, national program leader for the national USDA Forest Operations in Washington, D.C., and also a major contributor to the study. Forestry waste could potentially supply one-third of the nation's biomass energy demand. "We could considerably go up to one-half of that demand, if not higher," Stokes says. "We have the potential to do more, especially if we go into woody crops and if we start producing wood for energy."

Researchers were careful to factor environmental sustainability issues into their assessment, leaving out roadless areas and environmentally sensitive land relevant to forestry. In addition, variables such as soil quality, wind erosion and tillage practices were accounted for on the agricultural side. According to Perlack, if the environmental constraints were relaxed the biomass resource availability would be even larger.

Meanwhile, the report also determined that biomass consumption in the industrial sector would increase at an annual rate of 2 percent through 2030, while biomass consumption by electric utilities would double every 10 years through 2030. Supplying more than 3 percent of the nation's energy, biomass has already surpassed hydropower as the largest domestic source of renewable energy, according to the report. "Although we were focused more on the fuels, we weren't excluding power," Perlack says. "We were just looking at it in a more integrated fashion. Certainly some of the feedstocks identified in the Billion Ton study are much more amenable to power than they are to fuels production, especially some of the feedstocks that might contain dirt and rocks that could potentially affect a biochemical process moreso than a thermochemical process."

Reading Between the Lines
In gauging the report's relevance to the current situation, one must take into account the steady growth in U.S. ethanol and biodiesel production. Currently, the production of ethanol is about 5.6 billion gallons per year, and could reach 80 billion gallons or more under the scenario outlined in the report. According to the study, such an increase in ethanol production would result in the augmentation of transportation fuels made from biomass to 4 percent in 2010, 10 percent in 2020 and 20 percent in 2030.

Much to Perlack's surprise, since the study was released corn production has increased to meet the growing demand from the ethanol industry, which some believe is placing a strain on food and feed markets. These variables were simply things he could not foresee. However, the report retains its credibility due to its conservative approach to the assessment. "Our study was real conservative with regard to corn grain ethanol," Perlack says. "That's something we did right away and before the run-up. As an average, looking 40 years into the future, [corn production is] actually somewhat less than the straight-line projection of current trends."

Marie Walsh, an adjunct professor at the University of Tennessee, who worked with Perlack on the Billion Ton study, says that when reviewing the report it must be read with a critical eye. The absence of cost analysis and resource availability information on a localized level are crucial components in determining biomass availability in a more precise manner, she says.

"It's limited in the information it provides," Walsh says. "We need to really start breaking this down geographically and get some economics involved. You need to understand the distribution and the concentration of the feedstock."

Perlack agrees with Walsh's sentiments. "One thing we could have done is maybe prepared a number of maps that showed the spatial distribution of the various kinds of resources because shortly after the report came out we were inundated with questions about how much of the 1.3 billion tons is in a particular state," he says. "It was a very narrow focus in that we just wanted to look at the resource issues—how much resource is there and if that resource is sufficiently large to support a major biorefinery industry. That was it."

The omitted portions of the analysis to which Walsh alluded will be included in more detail by the Sun Grant Program, a biobased energy research initiative, which is cosponsored by the DOE and the USDA and established by the U.S. Congress under the Sun Grant Research Initiative Act of 2003. The program is aimed at developing sustainable and environmentally friendly biobased energy alternatives. Under the program, a group of five universities will collect data from their respective regions of the country to provide a more localized feedstock assessment in all areas, such as availability within a given region, county or state, cost analysis of each feedstock and how other market influences would increase availability—aspects that the Billion Ton study didn't examine.

For more information on the Billion Ton study, visit the Web site at http://feedstockreview.ornl.gov/pdf/billion_ton_vision.pdf.

Bryan Sims is an Ethanol Producer Magazine staff writer. Reach him at bsims@bbibiofuels.com or (701) 746-8385.