July 18, 2011 | General

Biomass Energy Outlook: Unpaved Way To Biomass Utilization

BioCycle July 2011, Vol. 52, No. 7, p. 43
Mark Jenner

AS a professional data miner and an applied mathematician, I am a bona fide skeptic until I have had the chance to tear apart the analysis and put it back together. We tend to get very comfortable with what we “know as fact” solely because we have some data. Historical data always reflects outdated technologies, and yet we use that “real data” to forecast a future based on new technologies for which no data exists. I call this our “driving forward while looking backwards” strategy.
We can not wait several decades until historical data exists for the new technologies, because by that time it will simply be reflecting another obsolete technology. We have to use the data available and then continue filling in the gaps as we go. Sometimes the math gets ugly. While it is critical to acknowledge our analytical weaknesses, we are still better off using this frontier math for exploring the bounds of life on our shrinking planet than we are using these rough estimates for setting laws. I include most respected analyses in the definition of “rough,” because they simply are too narrow to capture our true potential.
One fact that makes me uncomfortable is the limit we place on potential biomass. But my universe of yet-uncounted biomass from highway right-of-ways (ROW) has just expanded by millions of acres. Daniel Hathaway in eastern Nevada and Utah has been sending photos, slideshows, and field day summaries for several months about the untapped biomass resources in our highway ROW. He inspired me to look for more information on this topic.
One nugget of data I found was the May 2010 US Department of Transportation (DOT) final report on the National Highway System’s (NHS) “Carbon Sequestration Pilot Program.” The US DOT estimates that the NHS includes 163,000 miles of the Interstate Highway System and other connecting roads important to the nation’s economy, defense and mobility. This is about 4 percent of the nation’s roads and carries 40 percent of all highway traffic and most heavy truck and tourism traffic. Also over two-thirds of the NHS exists in rural areas. The DOT estimates there are 5 million acres of NHS ROW of which 3.5 million acres is unpaved and growing biomass.
The potential pool of domestic, local, nonfood biomass acreage just expanded! Anyone who has driven on this 163,000 mile NHS knows that there are many parts carved out of mountains or span wetlands which can not be easily farmed. Many of the urban miles likely have ROW acres that would be difficult to harvest, though it is premature to rule out the development of a specialized type of urban ROW biomass crop that would grow well there. There is also the fact that this NHS acreage covers only 4 percent of the nation’s highway ROW.

One minor downside of the report is that the US DOT is looking into using this acreage to sequester carbon and accumulate carbon credits. This means that the 3.5 million-acre quantity was generated to remove this acreage from the available pool of usable biomass. While there may be some part of the NHS ROW that is best used as sequestered carbon acreage, this should be the fall back plan rather than the starting place. I believe that we are better off using biomass to offset both domestic and foreign fossil carbon than we are in storing it.
Allowing the private sector to harvest this biomass for use in local energy projects would create jobs, generate local revenue and reduce the public cost of mowing and maintaining the ROW. Across the nation, the private removal of public ROW biomass would act as a subsidy, stimulating business without using public funds. And even with an annual harvest of ROW biomass, carbon would still be sequestered in the roots and residuals.

The arid mountains of the West do not grow biomass like the Midwest or the coasts. The biomass ROW work in Nevada and Utah involves tumbleweed, rubber rabbitbrush, sagebrush, pinyon pine and juniper. The roadways concentrate the precipitation under the roadbed providing a reservoir to these median plants through the driest season. Wildfires from pinyon pine and juniper are costly and debilitating, sometimes closing highways, so some public highway resources are already focused on thinning these plants.
Other states, especially in the Midwest, already have provisions and permits available for farmers to harvest hay from the ROW and sometimes the medians. Each state has differing provisions, but these permits allow the biomass on the state ROW to be baled and utilized. The end use of baled biomass, whether for feed or fuel, is generally not specified. Some states like Wisconsin and Michigan have begun assessing ROW biomass. Many areas where roads run through forestland, the ROW are growing trees. Managing this multiyear ROW biomass may require a long-term, sustainable forestry strategy.
Charles Gould, Extension Education with the Agriculture and Agribusiness Institute at Michigan State University is in the second phase of a research study on growing, harvesting and utilizing bioenergy crops on nontraditional lands, including highway and right of way areas. His research estimates that in Michigan, areas that could be used for bioenergy crop production is between 9,500 and about 12,000 acres.
Millions of tons of local, low-cost, renewable biomass from our nation’s highway right of ways across the United States are relatively unexplored and waiting for a bioenergy project for collection. It is very exciting when our known, fixed universe of available data suddenly expands.
It may well be that the road to a bioeconomy is paved with good intentions, but the right of ways are full of biomass!

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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