January 25, 2011 | General

Biomass Energy OutlookFive Steps To A U.S. Bioeconomy

BioCycle January 2011, Vol. 52, No. 1, p. 52
Mark Jenner

As we begin this New Year there is great hope and frustration regarding the speed of biomass utilization in the U.S. Private sector commercialization of conversion technology seems to have stalled in the economic downturn. Policy development is gridlocked by conflicting scope and authority of existing and new laws. Even the economic demand for biomass utilization appears to be in question.
In last month’s BioCycle, Nora Goldstein challenged us all to move away from the “disposing” of our undervalued organic resources. Inspired by Nora’s editorial, and fueled by my own frustration, I am using this month’s column to cover the gamut of general barriers to forward progress in a clean, green bioeconomy. As a former high school hurdle runner, winning a race required clearing the obstacles before me. Effectively navigating barriers is just part of change.

The first part of this organic resource development challenge is related to semantics, although it is far more than word choice. We need to move away from negative ideas. The concepts of economic “goods,” like commercial products, and economic “bads,” such as pollution emissions, are all simply outputs. A single chicken produces both eggs and manure. To get to a green, bioeconomy we need to find a productive use for every output. In a similar way, an industrial processing technology and a waste treatment technology both transform inputs into outputs. The concept of technology is neither good nor bad, it is just transformational.
The “more-than-semantic” part of the challenge is that we manage waste disposal enterprises differently than resource development enterprises. Disposal is a cost to be minimized. Just reducing costs does not require a corresponding revenue stream to offset disposal costs. The same is not true for a profit-generating business. By definition, a profitable business means the benefits must be greater than the costs. Residuals of any organic production process can be developed into a value-added market. As Nora implied last month, waste disposal should not be a long-run option.

This seems to keep getting worse. This has been a common theme in this column over the past few months. Materials that are chemically carbohydrates (carbon, hydrogen and oxygen) fall under literally dozens of federal and state statutes and laws. Legal waste definitions differ from agricultural and forestry products. The energy laws define things differently than other industry sectors.
A 2010 report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) compares biomass definitions in recent statutes. The variation in definitions is mind numbing. Authors Kelsi Bracemort and Ross Gorte cite three definitions of biomass in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) and six definitions of biomass in the Energy Policy Act of 2005. These don’t even include all the other variant organic definitions regarding liquid, solid and gaseous wastes – including greenhouse gas emissions. As long as public policy is disoriented and uncertain about the value of biomass, industrial development also will be constrained.

There are disagreements in policy priorities that must be navigated before resolution can be achieved. Three big open issues are food vs. fuel, utilization of forest biomass on federal lands, and more complete use of biogenic solid waste.
As a career agricultural economist, the food vs. fuel argument is a moot point. We will always place a higher value on food than we do on fuel. For instance, a grocery-store price of $5/lb for food is the same price as $10,000/ton. It is more common to find food prices at $1 to $3/lb, but by including organic food, high-end gourmet food, and food prepared at restaurants, the average cost exceeds the $5/lb price. Gasoline at $3/gallon has a per-ton value of about $1,000/ton. Fuel pellets, corn, hay and other livestock feed range from $100 to $200/ton. In this example, we pay 10 times more for food than fuel and 100 times more for food than we do for animal feed.
Like other issues, the utilization of federal forest biomass is not simply resolved. While there may be good reason to keep forestry harvesting equipment out of some of our forests, these concerns must be weighed against the massive carbon dioxide emissions that are released when wildfires burn millions of acres (even on federal lands). In the West, much of the forest biomass is owned by the federal government. Banning healthy removal of federal forest biomass seems counterproductive.
Another sensitive issue, especially for some BioCycle readers, is the utilization of biogenic solid waste for energy. I am an agronomist with a great respect for the value of quality compost. As a manure visionary I am passionate about the opportunities for anaerobic digesters. But as a biomass economist I am also excited about the evolving thermal conversion technologies using gasification and pyrolysis. I place a premium on local reliance over a dependency on foreign sources of energy.

One of the difficult challenges is setting the boundaries around a system. We must avoid the temptation to select a single measurement like greenhouse gases to define acceptable biomass, organic residual or carbon dioxide utilization. Using a pollution emission (e.g., greenhouse gas) as a measure of quality of life (e.g., renewable wealth creation) uses something we don’t like to quantify something we value.
The bioeconomy is about success based on an efficient allocation of our natural resources – not success per unit of emission. As we balance our organics utilization, emissions will also be balanced. However, there is a growing sense that all that matters is our output of carbon dioxide. Our zeal to reduce our carbon footprint will potentially lower our quality of life by increasing energy and regulatory compliance costs. Some say these increased costs are just the cost of realignment with our global carbon footprint. I don’t think so. I believe the gains from a more efficient allocation of our resources will pay for the costs of change. But benefits are difficult to realize when the measure of success is based on a liability.

We all want our children to have a higher quality of life than we have had. Yet we can not move into tomorrow without making a few mistakes. We do not have the luxury of waiting until we have perfect knowledge. There will always be risks. We just have to do the best we can and take action.

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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