DOE Billion-Ton Update Makes Clear the Role of Biomass in U.S. Energy Strategy

After much anticipation within the biomass community, the latest update of the DOE’s Billion-Ton report reaffirms that the United States by the year 2040 has the potential to sustainably produce at least one billion tons of nonfood biomass resources that could be used for low- and no-carbon biofuel and biopower, as well as other bioproducts.

Released this week, the report, 2016 Billion-Ton Report: Advancing Domestic Resources for a Thriving Bioeconomy, is the latest in a series of assessments that have calculated the potential supply of biomass in the United States. The report makes the case that the United States could produce enough biomass to support a bioeconomy, including renewable resources that could be used for energy and a vast array of products, all while providing economic, environmental, social and national security benefits.

The report concludes that the United States has the potential in the next 25 years to produce up to four times the amount of biomass resources (composed of agricultural, forestry, waste, and algal materials) that are harvested today, all without adversely affecting the environment.

Furthermore, the amount of biomass that could be available could be used to produce enough biofuel, biopower and bioproducts to displace approximately 30 percent of 2005 U.S. petroleum consumption, and this offset would not negatively affect the production of food or other agricultural products.

The latest assessment, led by DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) with contributions from 65 experts from other federal agencies, including USDA, EPA, the U.S. Forest Service, other national laboratories, universities and private companies, builds on research first published in 2005 and updated in 2011.

The document released Tuesday is actually the first of two volumes. The second volume is set for release later this year, and will consist of a collection of analyses on the potential environmental sustainability effects ‑ water quality and quantity, greenhouse gas emissions, air quality, soil organic carbon, and biodiversity ‑ of a subset of agricultural and forestry biomass production scenarios laid out in the volume released this week. Volume 2 will also discuss land use and land management changes, as well as strategies to enhance environmental and algal sustainability.

The report released this week extends the biomass outlook period to 2040, up from 2030 as set out in the 2011 document. Also new in this assessment are the potential energy resources that could be harvested from dedicated energy crops (miscanthus, energy cane and eucalyptus, among others), as well as from algae and municipal waste. And for the first time, the report also considers how the cost of pre-processing and transporting biomass to the biorefinery may impact feedstock availability.

The assessment details a high yield scenario that shows the nation’s biomass usage has the real potential to increase to 1.57 billion tons each year, as compared to the 400 million tons currently harvested annually.

“Increasing production and use of biofuel, biopower and bioproducts would substantially decrease greenhouse gas emissions in the utility and transportation sectors, and reduce U.S. dependence on imported oil as the domestic bioeconomy grows,” the report states.

The findings underscore the 25x’25 Vision that biomass – from currently available logging and crop residues, to future dedicated energy crops – is one of the essential elements needed to forge a clean energy future.

Although Volume 1 released this week does not address the carbon neutrality of biomass, it comes at an opportune time by offering members of Congress, who are on track to hammer out energy legislation this fall, evidence of the value of the benefits biomass can offer in reducing carbon emissions. The Senate version of the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2016 contains a provision that deems biomass carbon neutral, an important step in bringing some harmony to federal laws and regulations that currently have 13 different definitions of biomass.

As the analysts say in a fact sheet accompanying the report, the aim of the assessment is to inform national bioenergy and biofuels policies, as well as research, development, and deployment strategies. All renewable energy stakeholders are urged to reach out to lawmakers and encourage them to look at this report, then support the Senate version of the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2016 and its provisions that help promote the widespread development of sustainable agricultural and forestry resources to produce clean-renewable energy.

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