May 23, 2007 | General

Biomass Energy Outlook: All Out Race To Commercialization

BioCycle May 2007, Vol. 48, No. 5, p. 62
Mark Jenner

Biomass energy today is in an all out race to commercialization. We are spectators watching a great bioenergy race. The evolution of technologies plays a significant role, but the criteria for success is, “can we do this and make money?” Dry-mill ethanol plants are the reigning “winners” and we are anxious to see the next bright technology emerge.
For most of the other technologies, it is a free-for-all. There is an amazing amount of money being thrown about. Government grants are available from local, state and federal agencies as well as industries. And then, of course, there are permits and compliance laws. Agencies aren’t sure if they are regulating a commodity or an environmental pollutant. For example, methane is both a greenhouse gas and a source of energy. BOD (biological oxygen demand) is something wastewater treatment operators want to get rid of, but it is also an indicator of the carbon, or energy in the material. The biomass (plant stored, chemical energy of photosynthesis) hasn’t changed, but we are having to look at these materials in new ways.
Recently, I launched a new website, Each day, I mine the daily biomass news for data related to new biomass projects, technologies and policies. Then I load the links on as a log of the exciting changes we are experiencing. Every month, I summarize the observations in Burning Bio News, the newsletter posted on the site.
There are many distractions in the daily biomass energy news. Notable reports challenge the environmental benefits of bioenergy and raise such questions as food versus fuel. Long-term thermodynamic efficiency is the right goal. In the long-run, efficiency also will indicate economic gains, but that is not the best indicator today. Today it is about the money. Here is a round-up of current trends. This first column lays out the landscape across renewable fuel and power sources. In subsequent columns, we will focus on the structure of specific technologies or feedstocks.
Corn Ethanol: Ethanol is not the end of the story, but the beginning. Corn-based ethanol is analogous to Ford’s Model “T.” It wasn’t the first car, but it changed the way the world looked at the costs of producing automobiles forever.
Cellulosic Ethanol: Cellulosic ethanol is “on deck” and is a great way to describe the “race” to commercialization. At the end of February, the U.S. Department of Energy announced six commercial cellulosic ethanol projects it was funding ($385 million). These six companies represent six nearly commercial-scale technologies. Interestingly, there are more than six cellulosic projects underway that utilize six different technologies and feedstocks. Some of these didn’t want to wait for the federal money. Others didn’t make it through the competition. The race isn’t a field of six. It is more like a field of 10 to 12, all of them vying for the recognition of a new commercial technology.
Biodiesel: Biodiesel fuels have been the “little sister” to ethanol plant development. The structure of the established vegetable oil industry is different than the ethanol industry and so it does not grow for the same reasons. For instance, biodiesel plants generally use processed vegetable oil, which is not the same kind of material that farmers keep on hand like bushels of corn that are used in corn ethanol. The latest advances in biodiesel have been in the feedstocks. The last few months have brought great excitement about biodiesel fuel from algae and jojoba nut. These new crops offer yields that dwarf per acre yields of soybean oil.
Most recently, the news has been the Internal Revenue Service’s determination that the thermal conversion of any vegetable oil or animal fat to a fuel is open to the federal production tax credit. Within days of the IRS determination, Tyson and ConnocoPhillips announced a joint venture to turn chicken fat and diesel fuel into a renewable diesel. The National Biodiesel Board is opposed to this ruling, claiming the production tax credit of $1/gallon for biodiesel fuel was implemented to encourage new refining capacity (no new crude oil refining capacity has been built for decades). A small change in a legal definition changed the rules and is allowing crude oil refiners to use plant and animal oils without building new capacity.
Biogas: Methane from the anaerobic digestion of manure, sewage and solid waste is becoming more common. Again there is a conflict between trapping this noxious greenhouse gas and the business development idea of cultivating production. The good news is that successful ventures that maximize methane output also will prevent emissions.
Wood-Fired Electricity: Biomass power plants – wood waste to electricity – are also growing in number and capacity. Woody biomass for electrical power, or cellulosic ethanol, is still very costly to transport. The opportunity to purchase green power is adding incentives.
Pellets: Fuel pellets for residential stoves and furnaces are exploding with popularity. In the 2005-2006 heating season, pellet mills in North America produced over one million tons of fuel pellets. Sounds like a lot, but even so there were shortages this past winter. And if your primary home heating source takes fuel pellets and there aren’t any, that is a problem.
Watching the biomass news the last few months, nearly one million tons of fuel pellet production capacity has been added in the U.S. Fuel pellets are being made from sawdust, hurricane debris, as well as paper and switchgrass. The targeted markets are Europe and Asia.
Over the coming months we’ll take a closer look at the structure and drivers of individual industries, feedstocks, technologies, distribution channels and how available data influences the news.
Mark Jenner, PhD, is an independent information-specialist who has provided innovations in manure utilization for on-farm value-added projects, performed data work on trade policy analyses, and manure planning. Jenner has guided the Indiana Department of Agriculture’s BioTown, USA project in converting an Indiana community from fossil fuels to biomass fuels.

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