September 19, 2011 | General

Biomass Energy Outlook: Biomass Carbon With A Purpose

BioCycle September 2011, Vol. 52, No. 9, p. 61
Mark Jenner
There is a public phobia surrounding carbon emissions, but biomass carbon emissions are not the villain. The release of recently-sequestered biomass carbon doesn’t add to the carbon pool in the same way ancient, fossil carbon does. Climate change policies ignore all the other really great benefits of biomass carbon and focus exclusively on this carbon leakage from the system in naive hope that by controlling the carbon emissions, a green economy will grow and prosper. The solution is just the opposite. By creating a biomass-based economy, carbon emissions will be reduced.
Viewing biomass production, sequestration and emissions in the context of the food chain model defines the economy as producers, consumers and decomposers. My heroes in the BioCycle world are the commercial decomposers who make their living bringing balance to the food chain and the economy. Emissions and wastes represent leakage from the system. The more renewable resources that get consumed before returning carbon and nutrient leftovers back to the plants, the better the economy and the ecosphere operate.


We tend to lose track of how much our current economic growth is dependent on biomass in all its forms. A 2011 report from the Pacific Northwest National Labs shows that carbon dioxide is sequestered on the land away from people and moved into the concentrated areas that feed both humans and animals. As humans consume carbon-based food and fuels in all its anthropogenic forms, carbon emissions are released. The article, “Regional Uptake and Release of Crop Carbon in the United States” by T.O. West and others, in the journal Biogeosciences Discussions models all facets of agricultural-plant growth, carbon sequestration and release.
This study mathematically replicates plant-derived carbon that was sequestered, harvested and released in nine different U.S. regions. The objective was to focus on the carbon cycled through the crops, not to conduct a total carbon mass balance for the nation. The results indicate that biomass carbon sequestering regions (sinks) of the U.S. are the upper Midwest and northern plains and the northeast U.S. The biomass carbon net emitters (sources) were the southeast and coastal regions, including the Gulf and West Coasts of the U.S.
The study found that domestic livestock consume the largest quantity of crop biomass carbon before becoming human food. The next largest quantity of biomass carbon is shipped through export markets. The third largest use of biomass carbon is for fuel, and way down the list comes the amount of biomass carbon domestically consumed by humans for food. The paradox of the quest to root out anthropogenic carbon emissions is that when directed at biomass carbon, we restrict access to the benefits of biomass – like feeding us, removing it from the atmosphere and reducing the reliance on fossil carbon in our economy.
Although I have based my career on adding value to undervalued organic residuals, this study reminds me that the pool of available biomass residuals is driven by a healthy supply of new biomass. It also shows that even though transporting biomass is costly, it moves not only across this country but internationally. Local production and consumption is an efficient use of biomass resources, but we find good reasons to move it great distances.

Communities have different resources. Some regions are better suited for growing grass than grains. Other areas are better suited for fruits and vegetables. If we tried to grow all our food or energy locally, there are regions of this country that would have to do without many kinds of produce. Some areas are not even suited to grow grasses. It makes great sense to use the most productive ground for the highest value production like food and other land for animal feed. We export biomass out of local areas that can grow biomass into areas that cannot grow those crops easily due to soil, water supply or climactic conditions.
Trade and export, therefore, makes great sense to balance natural and economic resources across different regions. Illinois sends its corn to California for use in the dairy industry and California sends back carrots and wine. Exports, between communities, regions and countries, allow resources to balance and are a healthy economic function between areas.
This West, et al., 2011 study reports that we export more agricultural biomass out of the country than we use as fuel or than we consume as food. This means that we support other countries by reducing pressure on sensitive lands that they are protecting such as rain forests, or on which they are unable to produce their own biomass.
Export and trade, whether across international, regional, state or community boundaries, provides for balancing economic and natural resources. We are in a race to optimize our total global biomass production, but just don’t realize it completely. This can bring a renewal to economically depressed rural communities at all geopolitical levels.
Controlling an expanding bioeconomy by using carbon emission policies to incentivize that expansion will not work. We have lost our focus on the great benefit of well-managed production of biomass resources. To build on the tremendous existing benefits of biomass we must embrace it – not fear it – as our carbon emission policies currently infer.

Mark Jenner, PhD, and Biomass Rules, LLC, has joined the California Biomass Collaborative. Burning Bio News and other biomass information is available at

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