September 22, 2008 | General

Biomass Energy Outlook: Is There A Silver Lining In Energy Use Data?

BioCycle September 2008, Vol. 49, No. 9, p. 39
Mark Jenner

IN MAY of this year, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) released a preliminary report that includes energy use in 2007. EIA data showed that the U.S. consumed 101.6 Quadrillion BTUs (Quads) of energy. For comparative purposes, one million is a 1 followed by six zeros. A quadrillion is a one followed by 15 zeros, so 101.6 Quad is the same thing as 101,600,000,000,000,000 BTUs.
Biomass energy consumption in 2007 was 3.615 Quad, i.e., only 3.6 percent of the energy consumed was produced from biomass. Biofuels consumption was 1.018 Quad (1 percent of the nation’s energy consumption). Renewable fuel consumption, a broader category than the biomass sources, was at 6.83 Quad, nearly 7 percent.
The EIA report also includes energy use data from previous years. For example, in the last five years biofuels increased 25 percent each year – not too shabby! Biofuel consumption is doubling every four years. The broader category of all “biomass” energy sources (biofuels, wood and other wastes) increased at an average of six percent a year. And all “renewable” fuels (biomass, hydro, wind and solar) increased almost 2.7 percent per year.
This report is not encouraging in terms of the overall impact that renewable power and fuels is having on the nation’s energy consumption, but it does show progress. There are more bioenergy projects, new technologies and effective policies every month. Projects “in-the-works” will not show up in the EIA database until they begin production; those that begin mid-year will not show their annual capacity until they have operated a full calendar year. It takes about two years of operation for projects nearing completion in the last half of the year to show up in the federal energy dataset.
We are racing to capture more solar energy – mostly in the form of stored carbohydrates in plants. Economically speaking, the most efficient levels of production happen when the greatest output occurs from the available inputs. Economic growth is based on more efficient combinations of inputs that produce a greater output. This is what is happening as we develop new sources of biomass (energy crops) and pull more residual organics (wastes) back into the economy as energy and compost.
U.S. crop production continues to expand to meet multiple markets of energy production, food production, industrial/manufacturing and remediation. The hot political issue of food vs. fuel assumes that only the first two of these markets exist and that production is relatively constant. In 2007, corn production kept pace with both the traditional and new uses of corn. Better yet, we are building the infrastructure to grow new energy crops on land that will remediate the environment and not compete with food and feed uses. However, camelina, switchgrass, poplar, miscanthus and algae will only be successful if they use no additional irrigation, have less tillage and fewer additional fertilizer nutrients.
Demand for used or residual biomass (wastes) is growing even faster. This means that we are using more of our organic wastes for value-added compost or energy. Forest waste (sawdust) is being sucked up for pellet fuel production. Dead trees and sawmill waste can’t be delivered to the pellet mills fast enough. High fuel oil prices are driving a record adoption of biomass heating fuels. The U.S. is producing more pellets than ever before, but demand is growing even faster.
Similarly, the solid waste industry is struggling mightily with the best way to get into the energy business. The existing infrastructure and economic incentives send the message that more biomass should be landfilled to make more methane and electricity. At the same time, new, compelling economic incentives are emerging that pull them toward cellulosic ethanol and other bioenergy projects. Neither of these have shown up yet in EIA data.
Economic consumption efficiency also has an impact. When the highest levels of utility or satisfaction are attained from the available products, consumption efficiency is the highest. This is illustrated with the per capita consumption of electricity in California. The California Energy Commission shows that from 1975 onward, electrical use per person in California has remained constant, while per person use for the rest of the nation over the same period nearly doubled. This is due to efficiency standards mandated in the 1970s for all appliances sold in California.
With fuel prices climbing to record highs this spring, demand for more efficient, high mileage vehicles also climbed. Mandating fuel standards has not worked very well, but the record 2008 fuel costs captured everyone’s attention. In the last six months, vehicle manufacturers have moved from trying to sell SUVs to promoting models that get over 30 mpg. As consumption efficiencies increase, we are able to attain the same or higher quality of life while using less stuff.
A 3.6 percent share by biomass fuels of 2007 U.S. energy consumption is not very exciting. However, this does not yet reflect the ever-increasing efficiencies in production and consumption. Subsequent datasets should bring about notable increases in renewable and biomass energy levels.
Mark Jenner, PhD, operates Biomass Rules, LLC and has over 25 years of biomass utilization expertise. Burning Bio News is Jenner’s monthly scorecard of bioenergy project adoption, available at

Sign up