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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Sept/Oct 2006 : Energy


Back to Basics
Research is under way to determine how the United States can reduce its dependency on foreign oil, and increase the use of biomass as an energy source.

by Dennis Walsh

Nearly 80 percent of the world’s energy comes from oil, coal or natural gas—fossil fuels that contribute to the greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) that precipitate climate change. Fossil fuels are widely used to produce energy, but also contribute greatly to national and global carbon emissions.

Yale University surveyed 1,000 adults nationwide, and discovered that while Americans are deeply divided on many issues, they overwhelmingly believe that the United States is too dependent on imported oil. Ninety-two percent of Americans say they are worried about dependence on foreign oil. The survey showed that a vast majority of the public also wants to see government action to develop new “clean” energy sources, including solar and wind power, as well as hydrogen cars.

Producing energy from biomass is a win-win situation, reducing the need to burn coal or oil. At the same time, the energy produced is carbon-dioxide neutral, and GHGs will not increase as a result of energy generation. The International Energy Agency (IEA) Bioenergy Implementing Agreement was established in 1977, with Canada as one of the four original signatory countries. Canada contributes knowledge, expertise and funds to IEA Bioenergy, and in return has access to research results and valuable scientific exchanges.

Ironically, last year, the United Nations-sponsored Ecosystem Assessment noted that degradation of Earth’s natural systems has been brought about by human activity. Deforestation accounts for 25 percent of annual human-caused carbon emissions, and nearly one percent of the global forested area was lost between 2000 and 2005. Since the 1970s, the contribution of forest biomass to Canada’s energy supply has increased from three to four percent, to five to six percent today. Changes in pulp and paper technology caused most of the increase. Today, Canada leads nine other countries in Task 31: Conventional Forestry Systems for Sustainable Production of Bioenergy, which is developing methods of forest harvesting for sustainable production of biomass for energy.

Defining Biomass
Biomass is, of course, plant material—the product of photosynthesis — that can be used as a fuel to supply heat and electricity. Forest biomass includes trees that are of harvestable age (but not suitable for lumber), pulp thinning, residual material from harvesting, and trees killed by fire, diseases or insects. Biomass includes the byproducts of industrial processes—sawdust, bark, chips or “hog fuel” (pieces of wood of various sizes)—and the lignin-rich “black liquors” used in the pulping process. Biomass may also consist of plantations of trees grown specifically for energy purposes. But for biomass to be useful in energy production, it must be produced at a competitive cost and cause minimal environmental damage, and the quality must be optimal for energy conversion and end use.

The economic value of wood is low compared to lumber, veneer or pulpwood. Its value as a heating source is also low compared to fossil fuels. For harvesting operations to be economical, they must be done where site conditions make full use of the equipment available. Nevertheless, despite capital-cost sharing and other relief incentives, markets for biomass are generally considered to have high capital and operating costs, coupled with low costs of fossil fuels.

Forest biomass is the nation’s and world’s largest reserve of renewable carbon resources, but without the availability of economically competitive forest biomass stocks, the probability of tripling biomass energy consumption in the United States is doubtful. Ultimately, R&D is expected to lead to commercial, sustainable energy plantations that are integrated with conversion processes in biorefineries supplied with forest-based fuels and feedstocks.

Governmental InvoLVement
The Biomass R&D Act of 2000 launched a multi-agency Biomass Initiative to promote the use of biobased fuels and products. The Biomass Initiative was energized by the EPAct 2005 update to the Biomass R&D Act, and is now set to play a strategic role as biofuel takes center stage in the President’s Advanced Energy Initiative. This initiative requires coordination and collaboration across federal industry and research sectors. Academia and the private sector are working together through the Biomass R&D Technical Advisory Committee. 

The Biomass R&D Act along with the 2002 Farm Bill set the framework for interagency cooperation and joint solicitations. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy coordinated efforts to issue a joint solicitation that is awarding more than $13 million in USDA funding and more than $12 million from DOE appropriations. The Biomass Initiative has since fostered collaboration between the USDA and the DOE, both of which have conducted joint analyses on such diverse subjects as “Biomass as Feedstock for a Bioenergy and Bioproducts Industry: The Technical Feasibility of a Billion-Ton Annual Supply.” The USDA and Argonne National Laboratory have jointly studied the net energy benefits of ethanol. Progress has been made in the areas of planning, coordination, research and development, and communications and outreach.

Biomass energy consumption in 2002 was the equivalent of about 1.7 million barrels of oil per day, approximately 79 percent of which was wood-based. In 2004, the DOE and the USDA announced the selection of 22 projects that will receive $25,480,628 for the Biomass Initiative. Including the cost sharing of the private-sector partners, the total value of the projects is nearly $38 million. The DOE conducted an extensive forest biomass production program from the 1970s up to 1992. Increased demand for production and processing of biomass will support traditional U.S. commodities such as corn, as well as create new cash crops for America’s farmers and foresters.

What the research shows

A range of species, coupled with cultivation systems to improve productivity and develop plantation technologies, have been investigated for biomass use. Silver maple and several varieties of fast-growing poplars, willows and alder have been tested for suitability for energy plantations in Canada. A program in eastern Ontario demonstrated that hybrid poplars from genetically improved stock could be established and grown to produce biomass on a sustainable basis. Willows from Europe have yielded eight to 12 ovendry tonnes/ha/year in Newfoundland. Operational harvesting of biomass from energy plantations requires the appropriate technology. To date, modified agricultural equipment and existing European machinery has been the most effective approach. Environmentally, the effects of intensive biomass harvesting on soil nutrients has been studied under a variety of site and soil conditions.

Growing fuel sustainably in community wood lots and plantations could assist developing nations in meeting domestic fuel requirements. However, the transportation logistics to supply population centers, and the development and implementation of efficient and effective stoves are important issues. Countries with large forest-based industries have opportunities to utilize both forestry and sawmill residues in an integrated way.

While the DOE’s feedstock production program has made significant research contributions over the last 25 years, the Biomass Initiative strongly endorses the idea that the USDA should assume responsibility for this program. The USDA has a long history in biomass production, and is recognized worldwide for its accomplishments in developing advanced agricultural and forest biomass production methods. Woody feedstocks are essential for the production of much larger amounts of affordable biomass energy, fuels and chemicals than have been realized to date.

The advisory committee holds quarterly public meeting wherein it hears from a variety of stakeholders to analyze policy gaps that limit the ability to achieve committee goals to address the technical challenges of cost-competitive bio-based fuels and products. “Our agencies have been working together over the last few years to promote our nation’s biomass resources, which we believe will enhance our energy security, provide for a cleaner environment, and help to revitalize America’s rural economy,” said Spencer Abraham, U.S. secretary of energy. “The projects announced today will move us closer to our goal of establishing biorefineries that produce power, fuels, chemicals and other valuable products.”

Added U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman: “Biomass research, development and demonstration projects, including those with special emphasis on forestry products, support the president’s goal to enhance renewable energy supplies. Developing alternative energy sources that reduce pollution and increase energy security is an important part of the administration’s overall energy policy. These grants will help develop additional renewable energy resources and expand markets for agricultural products.” 

The USDA Forest Service is producing a 10-year, strategic research development and design plan that continues the research necessary to obtain the data and information needed for optimization of methods for recovering and removing waste biomass and small-diameter thinnings from forests. The plan also is testing their efficacy in preventing forest fires, and in designing forest plantations for different regions of North America; and integrating fire-prevention methods with forest biomass production. The management, growth, harvesting, storage and transport to hypothetical processing plants of both the waste and virgin biomass should be included in this work.

The resulting system designs should lead to industry cost-shared field projects to demonstrate medium-scale, sustainable, forest biomass production and the removal of residuals in several geographic locations. The power industry based on fossil fuels has been a major emitter of GHGs. Electricity generation from forest biomass is receiving increased attention.

Corporate Involvement

Since 2000, Chevron Corp., through its various subsidiaries, has spent more than $1.5 billion on renewable energy projects and on delivering energy efficient solutions. Biofuel production jumped 20 percent in 2005. Private-sector involvement is expected to accelerate this trend.
Chevron and the Georgia Institute of Technology have formed a strategic research alliance to pursue advanced technology aimed at making cellulosic biofuels and hydrogen viable transportation fuels.

Georgia Tech is one of the nation’s premier research universities, and maintains an international presence with campuses in France and Singapore and partnerships throughout the world. Chevron is one of the world’s leading energy companies. With more than 53,000 employees, Chevron subsidiaries conduct business in approximately 180 countries around the world, producing and transporting crude oil and natural gas, and refining, marketing, and distributing fuels and other energy products.
Chevron Technology Ventures, a subsidiary of Chevron Corp., plans to collaborate with Georgia Tech’s Strategic Energy Institute and contribute up to $12 million over five years for research into and development of emerging energy technologies. Chevron Technology Ventures LLC, a subsidiary of Chevron Corp., identifies, develops and commercializes emerging technologies and new energy systems, including hydrogen-related technologies, advanced energy storage technologies, renewable energy and nanotechnology.

The focus of this research is to develop commercially viable processes for the production of transportation fuels from renewable resources such as forest and agricultural waste. This is viewed as an important advancement over first-generation biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel, which are made from agricultural crops such as corn, sugarcane and soybeans.

“This research alliance underscores Chevron’s commitment to expand and diversify the world’s energy sources, and represents an ambitious effort to achieve breakthrough technology in the development of cellulosic biofuels,” said Don Paul, vice president and chief technology officer of Chevron.

“Beyond this project, Chevron in 2006 expects to spend approximately $400 million in the development of alternative and renewable energy technologies and in delivering energy efficiency solutions,” added Paul.
“Once developed, second-generation processing technology will allow waste products to be converted into renewable transportation fuels, opening the door to a new phase in alternative energy,” said Rick Zalesky, vice president of biofuels and hydrogen at Chevron Technology Ventures. The alliance will focus its research on four areas: production of cellulosic biofuels, understanding the characteristics of biofuel feedstocks, developing regenerative sorbents, and improving sorbents used to produce high-purity hydrogen.

Across the Atlantic, the European Union has adopted a detailed action plan designed to increase the use of energy from forestry, agriculture and waste materials. Andris Piebalgs, EU commissioner for energy, said, “This plan will reduce Europe’s dependence on imported energy, cut greenhouse gas emissions, protect jobs in rural areas and extend the EU’s technological leadership in these sectors. The plan outlines measures in three sectors: heating, electricity and transport. The measures in favour of transport biofuels, in particular, are a practical response to the problem of high oil prices.”

Dennis Walsh is a communications specialist focusing on renewable energy, socialentrepreneurship and green philanthropy. He is the editor of America’s GreenHouse, a renewable energy newsletter, and the increasingly popular GreenPhilanthropy blog.

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