September 21, 2010 | General

Biomass Energy Outlook: Cutting Back On The Oil Addiction

BioCycle September 2010, Vol. 51, No. 9, p. 69
Mark Jenner

Affecting a positive change in value-added biomass utilization can seem like a constant uphill battle. There are so many conflicting biomass and carbon policies that progress appears at best slow. Carbon policies of the day include carbon taxes, tailoring rules, criterion pollutants, water permits, renewable fuel and low carbon fuel standards. They all seem to contribute to the collective, growing list of economic barriers. It is mind numbing.
One intellectual escape looming on the horizon is the BioCycle Renewable Energy From Organics Recycling Conference in October in Des Moines, Iowa. But until then, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) has offered up a morsel of hope in its report on U.S. consumption of energy in 2009. Consumption from renewable sources is over eight percent!
Energy consumption in the U.S. has been hovering at about 100 quadrillion Btu since 2003. In 2009, that level fell a healthy five percent to 94.8 quadrillion Btu – the lowest level since 1997. Fossil fuel consumption also fell five percent to 78.6 quadrillion Btu. Certainly the harsh economic reality that the recession created for energy consumers is a major factor, but even without new carbon policies, energy consumption is becoming more sustainable.
Renewable energy consumption increased from 7.37 quadrillion Btu in 2008 to 7.75 quadrillion Btu in 2009. This is an impressively large number especially when written out in long hand 7,745,000,000,000,000, or 7.745 x 1015. While renewable energy consumption of less than 10 percent may seem trivial, it is not. The 8.2 percent comes from dividing 7.75 by the 94.8 quadrillion Btu of total consumption.

Half of the renewable energy (3.884 quadrillion Btu) came from biomass energy sources. Wood and derived fuels made up 24 percent in 2009. Sometimes the EIA defines this as wood and wood pellet fuels. Other times it includes black liquor and other wood waste liquids.
Biofuels (ethanol and biodiesel) made up 20 percent of the renewable energy consumed in 2009 primarily composed of 10.7 billion gallons of ethanol and 0.7 billion gallons of biodiesel. This 11 billion gallons, or 1.55 quadrillion Btu of biofuels, is over four percent of all petroleum and biofuels consumed. That small, but growing, share of biofuels in U.S. energy consumption represents a homegrown fuel with environmental benefits.
Now before anyone has a chance to take issue with that let me point out that the petroleum-based fuel oxygenate, MTBE, was initially added to gasoline to reduce air emissions. After discovering that leaking fuel tanks created MTBE-related water quality problems, about a third of the states legislatively banned MTBE from fuel. It was replaced relatively quickly with ethanol. This created a very large demand for ethanol and spawned construction of ethanol plants across the country. Then in 2008, with the oxygenate demand having been met, the ethanol expansion boom came to an abrupt halt, just as the U.S. economy went into a recession.
The economic roller-coaster of the U.S. biofuels industry expansion has left the nation a bit confused about whether the homegrown ethanol industry has been a worthwhile investment or not. It is important to note that the addition of MTBE was to reduce fuel emissions. That was a healthy step forward. The replacement of MTBE with ethanol was to further reduce water quality issues from underground gasoline storage tanks. That is an environmental benefit that we still enjoy. Significant environmental progress has been made even as the economy wrestles with continued investment in biofuels.
The remaining six percent of biobased renewable energy, 0.447 quadrillion Btu, comes from what EIA calls Biomass/Waste. The subcategories are “MSW biogenic” (waste-to-energy combustion), landfill gas projects and “other biomass,” which includes anaerobic digester projects. The only category that has been increasing over the last few years has been landfill gas (0.204 quad). The 500 or so landfill gas projects have a generation capacity of 1,800 MW, not including the significant amount of landfill gas that provides fuel for direct use in local industries. For the existing waste-in-place, this is an effective method of converting biogas that the landfill technology cannot assimilate into revenue.
I agree with everything that Sally Brown wrote about the inefficiency of landfill energy production in the May 2010 issue of BioCycle. We need to find a way to utilize the billions of tons of waste in place without creating incentives to bury more undervalued carbon.
Other non-bio renewable energy consumption sources include hydroelectric (35 percent), wind (9 percent), geothermal (5 percent), and solar (1 percent). Hydroelectric has been fairly constant, but is interesting to watch because annual droughts and floods have more to do with the amount of hydroelectric energy consumed than other energy policies. Wind continues to grow rapidly and solar energy consumption has grown at a slower rate.
Regarding the other nonrenewable energy sources consumed in 2009, petroleum (37 percent) and coal (21 percent) both declined, while nuclear (9 percent) and natural gas (25 percent) have stayed about the same. From a carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions standpoint, nuclear and natural gas emit less CO2 per Btu than petroleum and coal. Unfortunately these shifts have been due more to economic impacts rather than an interest in emission reductions.
It is encouraging that significant progress was made in 2009 in U.S. energy conservation, renewable energy consumption and in reductions from CO2 emissions from fossil fuels. It is too early to tell if it is a temporary adjustment or one that is longer-term. Until we know more though, I will take comfort that the U.S. energy consumption is moving in a more “durable” direction.

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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