March 23, 2011 | General

Biomass Energy Outlook: Farming Fuel – Or Not

BioCycle March 2011, Vol. 52, No. 3, p. 77
Mark Jenner

Before becoming a biomass systems economist, I was a farm production systems economist. I have strong biases toward this country’s unrealized potential of growing lots of plant matter and biomass. I also have biases toward economic development and environmental enhancement in economically-challenged rural America. The realization of opportunities will rely on a combination of land-centric agricultural and forestry biomass with the people-centric urban residual biomass. The exact combination will depend on the materials that are available locally.
Corn-based ethanol, which is definitely a farmed fuel, has become a political biofuel that isn’t quite good enough for some. The public “jury” is still out, but it is fairly clear that we don’t have enough information yet to declare much about the success or failure of ethanol. It is true that ethanol has changed the pricing structure of livestock feed, but it is infusing revenue into a rural America that has been in an economic downturn for well over 30 years.
This discussion, however, is not about corn-based ethanol, but rather how through this commercial experiment, we are learning how to develop a renewable, homegrown fuel industry. Opponents of the corn ethanol industry claim policy support for U.S. ethanol production is raising food and fuel costs. Reality is that U.S. food and energy costs are being driven up because the rest of the globe wants to eat better and live more comfortably. The additional costs from implementation of either a carbon cap and trade program or a carbon tax will cause a far greater increase on food and energy costs.

The ability of rural areas to grow economically is nearly nonexistent. For many years, USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) has tracked the exodus of rural residents to urban areas. USDA ERS’ Atlas of Rural and Small-Town America website has excellent economic information on rural America ( Under the “People” mapping menu, the net migration rate from 2000-2009 graphically shows the movement of nonmetropolitan residents out of the countryside to the more populated areas. The folks leaving nonmetro counties are moving into urban areas, adding to economic challenges in both.
ERS estimates that more than one-third of nonmetropolitan counties lost over 10 percent of their population in the last 20 years due to outmigration. This outmigration is related to low population density, county location and limited tourism opportunities. Counties that had poverty rates greater than 25 percent had higher outmigration rates. The impact of new job creation from biofuels in these rural areas is difficult to overstate.
USDA Rural Development infuses local governments and businesses with federal grants and loans necessary to upgrade rural infrastructure and launch new value-added businesses. Another innovative USDA policy is the federal Biopreferred regulation that is promoting mostly nonenergy biobased products. Federal standards for mulch and compost and 49 other product categories have been established to help increase demand of biomass products by the federal government for its uses.

The Renewable Fuels Standard regulations (RFS2) that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wrote as implementation language for the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007 constrains biomass production to existing farmland and biomass grown on nonfederal lands. Furthermore, the USDA’s Natural Resource Inventory (NRI) indicates that nonfederal rural lands continue to be converted into developed lands or urban developments.
Rural lands primarily include crop, pasture, range and forest lands that are not owned by the federal government. The challenge in the context of RFS2 advanced biofuels is that since 1982, 40 million acres of rural land have been converted to urban areas and roads – roughly 11 million acres of cropland, 7 million acres of pastureland, 5 million acres of rangeland and 17 million acres of forest land. More forest land has been lost to development than cropland.
Rural land also is shifting from private ownership to federal ownership, shrinking the available biomass pie. Over the same time period, the federal lands tracked by the NRI have grown by 10 million acres. Because the renewable fuels rule constrains eligible biomass to nonfederal lands, the new acreage falling under federal ownership adds to the acres lost to development and are no longer eligible under RFS2 regulations.
The biomass feedstocks that are not being derived from land-centric sources will be derived from people-centric sources. These biomass feedstocks, from wastewater and solid waste, are increasing. This may be good news for BioCycle readers. The path forward to utilization of these urban residuals is not completely clear. The greatest end use for some of these waste products has yet to be determined. Single-use bioplastics that can not be recycled may have a first use as packing material and a second use as fuel. Wastewater may become fertilizer and irrigation water for growing fuels in urban environments where the bioenergy projects also treat the wastewater.
The downside of people-centric biomass is that there is not enough underutilized organic residual material to power a nation. As we develop more efficient markets, the supply of organic residuals will become scarce. In spite of the economic friction and resistance, we are learning how to combine feedstocks and reduce redundancies in the waste treatment/energy production cycle. The rural economy is crying out for economic growth. The development of land-centric agricultural and forestry biomass projects remain a great hope to bring new wealth to the crumbling U.S. rural economic infrastructure.

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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