July 24, 2008

Redefining "renewable biomass" in EISA

As we strive to find sustainable alternatives to the demonstrably unsustainable fossil fuel paradigm the definition of "renewable biomass" is critically important. It is not just biofuels, biopower, or bioproducts that are (or are not) environmentally sustainable. Sustainability is a function, too, of the feedstock - and it may vary by region. Corn grown in the midwest might be sustainable while corn grown in California might not be for any number of reasons - water, pests, climate, topography, or soil to name a few. And that doesn't begin to address the question of economic sustainability which is determined by a host of other factors like capital availability, markets, infrastructure, ownership, manpower, and subsidies.

Bruce Dale of Michigan State University said at the 2008 California Biomass Collaborative "All biomass is local. And, as Tip O'Neil used to famously assert 'All politics is local.' So the obvious syllogism is that 'All biomass is political!'"

Funny if it wasn't so true.

Which is why it makes no sense for a federal definition of "renewable biomass" to be exclusionary (which is the way that it is as currently defined in the EISA law). It should be as inclusive as possible - allowing local considerations to determine what is environmentally and economically sustainable.

I think this is the inferred conclusion of an excellent "renewable biomass" testimony made today by Environmental and Energy Study Institute Senior Advisor Jetta Wong in her presentation at a hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Credit, Energy, and Research.

Here are some key points that she made in her summary and conclusion.

On December 19, 2007 the President and Congress took a huge step forward in trying to mitigate climate change and reduce our country’s reliance on fossil fuels by enacting the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA, P.L. 110-140). EISA substantially increases the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), calling for the production by 2022 of 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel with specific targets for greenhouse gas reductions. Within the 36 billion gallon mandate, 21 billion gallons must come from advanced biofuels, which means renewable fuel other than ethanol derived from corn starch. Additionally, there is a carve-out within the advanced fuels mandate that 16 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuel be derived from ‘renewable biomass.’

This is an aggressive and ambitious RFS. It is laudable, but it stirs up a lot of difficult issues regarding the sustainability of biofuels. One of the biggest factors in determining if a biofuel is sustainable is the choice of feedstocks used to produce the renewable fuel. Unfortunately, the definition of ‘renewable biomass’ included in the law deems several feedstocks ineligible, including thinning materials and woody residues from federal forests, some woody feedstocks from private forests, and a wide array of feedstocks from municipal solid waste.

Key Points :
• Renewable fuels are important to our climate and energy security strategy. They are reducing our dependence on foreign oil, reducing the cost of gasoline at the pump, and if produced sustainably, reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
• Renewable fuel facilities provide a market for low-value material produced through forest management practices.
• Abundant sources of woody biomass in the west can increase the distribution of liquid transportation fuels across the country. This will help to meet the large fuel markets of the west while further securing our energy supply.
• Mill residue and other woody materials create complications (in terms of collection) and should be carefully considered during implementation.
• Municipal solid waste is a low-value feedstock that several companies are investigating. Confusing or varying definitions included in public law create risk, limit innovation, and ultimately reduce the use of a feedstock currently considered a problem.
• Production of renewable fuels from low-value materials, such as woody biomass and municipal solid waste, reduces the pressure to develop feedstocks on sensitive land.
• A variety of stakeholders overwhelmingly support a broadening of feedstocks that could be eligible for the RFS. Specifically, low-value woody biomass sustainably harvested from both federal and private lands should be included.

Cellulosic biofuels can be produced from a highly diverse array of feedstocks, allowing every region of the country to be a potential producer of this fuel. (Cellulose is found in all plant matter.) As a result, support for cellulosic biofuels has brought together a broad array of constituents including environmentalists, farmers, national security experts, industry, and religious leaders. Unquestionably, the production of renewable fuels needs to be done in a way that sequesters carbon and enhances natural resources, including soils, water supply and native habitats. Production of renewable feedstocks should not be deemed to be in competition with the goals of sustainable agriculture or forestry. In fact, there are opportunities for renewable fuel and energy production to aid conservation efforts and environmental sustainability beyond those associated conventional agriculture, forestry or fossil fuel production and consumption.

The wisest course of action would be to focus on feedstocks that do not compete for land resources, such as low-value forest residues and other waste materials. The RFS is a very aggressive mandate, but it is not an impossible one, as long as we do not exclude any of those feedstocks that can be produced sustainably and that meet important environmental and greenhouse gas emissions reductions. With conversion technologies still in development, we must keep our options open and strive to produce renewable fuels that meet objective and appropriate standards of sustainability. Fortunately, our nation possesses abundant and readily available feedstocks that satisfy this criterion.

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July 21, 2008

Flambeau River BioFuels trailblazes Paper & Pulp Mill Conversions

It is always life-affirming to see the good guys win one. In this case the good guys are the participants of the Flambeau River Biofuels project led by strategic consultant Ben Thorp whose vision, persistence, and professionalism has been an inspiration to all who know him.

It has been a labor of love for Ben who has seen the industry he has devoted so much of his career (at Georgia Pacific) be reduced to a fighting retreat as offshore sourcing, labor prices, and environmental activism has taken a toll on this proud industry. During a time of heightened awareness of the need to buck the oil addiction, it is rarely mentioned that biomass conversion is the nation's largest producer of renewable energy (see chart).

To date the electricity and heat produced by combusting manufacturing residual wood at paper and pulp mills is generally used in plant operations. With projects like the Flambeau River project, the biofuels produced will be sold on the open market (capacity of 6 million gallons per year of Fisher-Tropsch liquids in the form of renewable sulfur-free diesel fuels and waxes).

The refinery is projected to open in 2010.

U.S. Department of Energy Awards Flambeau River BioFuels a Grant to Construct First-in-Class Facility for Production of Renewable Diesel to be Co-located at Pulp and Paper Mill in Park Falls, WI

PARK FALLS, Wis., July 15 /PRNewswire/ -- Flambeau River BioFuels is pleased to announce that it has received approval of its $30 million grant request from the U.S. Department of Energy to construct and operate a first- in-class biorefinery at an existing pulp and paper mill in Park Falls, Wisconsin. The final award value will be subject to final negotiation with the Department of Energy. When in full operation, the biorefinery will produce at least 6 million gallons of liquid fuels per year in the form of renewable sulfur-free diesel. The biorefinery will not be dependent on any food-based feedstock materials, but rather on by-products or residuals from forest and agricultural sources. The biorefinery will also generate at least 1 trillion BTUs per year of process heat that will be sold to Flambeau River Papers, which will make it the first integrated pulp and paper mill in North America to be fossil fuel free.

"This grant supports Flambeau River BioFuels' goal to be a major contributor in achieving the Federal government's goal of increasing renewable fuels production and reducing our nation's dependence on Mideast oil," said Bob Byrne, President, Flambeau River BioFuels. "With this funding, we will be able to accelerate the retrofitting of this mill from a pure pulp and paper plant to a broader production facility that will produce biofuels within the same facility, thus sharing key infrastructure elements and costs."

The Flambeau River BioFuels biorefinery will employ two commercially proven technologies to produce clean renewable energy and biofuels. It will gasify biomass resources, such as forest residuals and agricultural wastes, into a high-quality synthesis gas, which will then be catalyzed by the well-established Fischer-Tropsch (F-T) process to generate renewable transportation fuels (sulfur-free biodiesel).
"As you can imagine, we are very pleased that our technology approach has been recognized by the Department of Energy as a viable way to produce biofuel from forest residuals -- one of the most abundant renewable resources in the U.S." said William "Butch" Johnson, whose company Johnson Timber is both a project partner and a supplier to the biorefinery. "Since day one, our project has received strong support from Governor Doyle, Chairman Obey and Senator Kohl and we wish to thank them for all their efforts. Once operational, the biorefinery will serve to validate the technology while creating a compelling new model for the pulp and paper industry that can be proliferated throughout the U.S."

"A clean energy future depends on combining Wisconsin ingenuity with our state's resources, and I want to congratulate Flambeau River BioFuels for leading the way," Governor Jim Doyle said. "Their proposed biorefinery shows us all that we can have an energy future that creates jobs, protects our environment and relies less on Mideast oil and more on Midwest know-how."

The Flambeau River BioFuels biorefinery will create permanent, high-skilled operating jobs in the region, long-term logging jobs, and short-term, engineering and construction jobs, thus contributing to the economic stimulus of Park Falls, Wisconsin. The biorefinery is expected to be in operation in 2010.

The project team leading this endeavor is comprised of premiere engineers and scientists with demonstrated successes in implementing new technologies. It will also be supported by the expertise of university and government laboratories.

Flambeau River Biofuels received this grant through their partnerships with: ANL Consultants, Auburn University, Brigham Young University, Citigroup Global Markets, CleanTech Partners, Emerging Fuels Technology, Flambeau River Papers, Johnson Timber, National Renewable Energy Lab, Michigan Technological University, NC State University, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, ThermoChem Recovery International, University of Wisconsin, and the USDA Forest Products Laboratory.
"This grant will help meet our government's goals of creating new jobs, stimulating remote areas, re-positioning traditional industries for a new world era, and, most importantly, producing clean fuels from renewable resources abundantly found in the U.S.," said Bob Byrne. "We are proud to be a part of this important initiative by taking a leading position in the advancement of bioenergy technologies and the development of cellulosic biofuels."

For more information please Bill Johnson at 1-715-558-1630 or Bob Byrne at 1-715-661-0235.

SOURCE Flambeau River BioFuels
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July 11, 2008

Are Marginal Farmlands the Key to Sustainable Bioenergy?

There are many aspects that need to be considered when comparing the sustainability of different feedstock. We are all familiar with the feed vs. fuel debate. Then concern arose about land use change - deforesting to create land for growing biofuel feedstock. Ideally, the highest yielding, most sustainable energy crops would be grown on available land not already being used for any other purpose.

A recent study by scientists from Carnegie Institution and Stanford University that focus on the availability of "marginal farmlands" that are not forests, not being used to grow food crops, but are suitable for growing energy crops for conversion to bioenergy and biofuels.

Report Says Abandoned, Marginal Farmlands Key to Sustainable Bioenergy

Biofuels can be a sustainable part of the world's energy future, especially if bioenergy agriculture is developed on currently abandoned or degraded agricultural lands, report scientists from the Carnegie Institution and Stanford University. Using these lands for energy crops, instead of converting existing croplands or clearing new land, avoids competition with food production and preserves carbon-storing forests needed to mitigate climate change.

The report, The Global Potential of Bioenergy on Abandoned Agriculture Lands, asserts that sustainable bioenergy is likely to satisfy no more than 10 percent of the demand in the energy-intensive economies of North America, Europe, and Asia. But for some developing countries, notably in Sub-Saharan Africa, the potential exists to supply many times their current energy needs without compromising food supply or destroying forests.

Elliot Campbell, Robert Genova, and Christopher Field of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology, with David Lobell of Stanford University, estimated the global extent of abandoned crop and pastureland and calculated their potential for sustainable bioenergy production from historical land-use data, satellite imaging, and ecosystem models. Agricultural areas that have been converted to urban areas or have reverted to forests were not included in the assessment.

The researchers estimate that globally up to 4.7 million square kilometers (approximately 1.8 million square miles) of abandoned lands could be available for growing energy crops. The potential yield of this land area, equivalent to nearly half the land area of the United States (including Alaska), depends on local soils and climate, as well as on the specific energy crops and cultivation methods in each region. Still, the researchers estimate that the worldwide harvestable dry biomass could amount to as much as 2.1 billion tons, with a total energy content of about 41 exajoules, nearly 7 billion barrels of oil, or about eight percent of the world's energy demand.

"At the national scale, the bioenergy potential is largest in the United States, Brazil, and Australia," says lead author Campbell. "These countries have the most extensive areas of abandoned crop and pasture lands. Eastern North America has the largest area of abandoned croplands, and the Midwest has the biggest expanse of abandoned pastureland."

The authors say that using these lands would generate about six percent of the nation's energy needs, though larger opportunities exist in other parts of the world. In some African countries, where grassland ecosystems are very productive and current fossil fuel demand is low, biomass could provide up to 37 times the energy currently used.
"Our study shows that there is clearly a potential for developing sustainable bioenergy, and we've been able to identify areas where biomass can be grown for energy, without endangering food security or making climate change worse," says Field, director of the Department of Global Ecology.

The results of the study were published in the June 25 online edition of Carnegie Institution for Science.

An abstract of the report :
Converting forest lands into bioenergy agriculture could accelerate climate change by emitting carbon stored in forests, while converting food agriculture lands into bioenergy agriculture could threaten food security. Both problems are potentially avoided by using abandoned agriculture lands for bioenergy agriculture. Here we show the global potential for bioenergy on abandoned agriculture lands to be less than 8% of current primary energy demand, based on historical land use data, satellite-derived land cover data, and global ecosystem modeling. The estimated global area of abandoned agriculture is 385−472 million hectares, or 66−110% of the areas reported in previous preliminary assessments. The area-weighted mean production of above-ground biomass is 4.3 tons ha−1 y−1, in contrast to estimates of up to 10 tons ha−1 y−1 in previous assessments. The energy content of potential biomass grown on 100% of abandoned agriculture lands is less than 10% of primary energy demand for most nations in North America, Europe, and Asia, but it represents many times the energy demand in some African nations where grasslands are relatively productive and current energy demand is low.

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July 3, 2008

CA Draft Scoping Plan comment:
Sustainable Forests

This is one of a series of comments submitted to the California Air Resources Board for their draft version of the California Climate Change Draft Scoping Plan. Other BIOenergy BlogRing comments are linked here:
Challenge the Status Quo
Recycling and Waste
Sustainable Forests


The ill health of our forests is a statewide catastrophe. We are witnessing deforestation by wildfire, bug infestation, and decay that consumes our forests without adequate reforestation efforts. It is estimated by the California Forest Foundation that we are losing over 30,000 acres of timberlands (an area the size of San Francisco) each year to brushlands.

Nationally, six of the seven worst fire seasons on record have occurred within the last eight years with some fires lasting months and covering hundreds of thousands of acres. Just four wildfires that were recently studied were found to emit the GHG equivalent of adding 7 million cars to our streets for one year.

The smoke and emissions from wildfires are greenhouse gases that we can see, smell, and touch as ash and particulate matter is strewn across the landscape. But this is only the start of the GHG problem. Decay contributes 3 times as much greenhouse gas as the fire itself.

The goal of reducing 5 MMTC02E by 2020 seems woefully inadequate considering the GHG from the combustion of just one wiidfire (2007 Moonlight Fire in Plumas National Forest) which burned 65,000 acres has been documented to have generated 4.9 MMT GHG. Unmanaged treatment would add an additional 15 MMT GHG according to a study by the California Forest Foundation. If wildfire trends continue on their current trajectory, we will have to see much greater reductions to maintain the forest managed GHG sequestration defined in the Scoping Plan.

There are forest management practices that can and should be implemented that would mitigate the greenhouse gas impact of these fires while reducing the ferocity of future fires. These practices are not mentioned in the Scoping Plan and I'll list them here:

1 - We need to thin our most vulnerable forests.

Recent reports of a thousand fires in California spotlight the urgency of the problem - which is neither the lightning that sparks the fires nor the lack of firefighting resources to fight the blazes. The real problem is the density of the number of trees with undergrowth - estimated to be 4-10 times their historic profile - on our largely unmanaged forests.

In 2003, the U.S. Congress passed the 2003 Healthy Forest Restoration Act (HFRA) allocating $750 million dollars in federal funds to thin approximately 20 million acres nationally. Thinned forests contain the spread of wildfires.

Due to resource allocation to fight forest fires, answer environmentalist challenges (729 lawsuits between 1989-2003), and the resultant bureaucratic inertia only 77,000 acres have been thinned.

Thinning forests won't reduce the incidence of fires, but it would significantly reduce their size and GHG consequences.

2 - We need to salvage wood from impacted forests.

Reducing the biomass of dead and dying trees would go far to mitigating the GHG impacts of wildfires since decay contributes three times the GHG as the original fire itself. Large diameter wood could be converted into saw logs and building materials that sequester carbon in energy efficient homes. Scrap wood could be used to cleanly generate green electricity and convert into carbon-neutral biofuels reducing our GHG from fossil fuels.

3 - We need to replant our devastated forests.

From 2001 to 2007, over 143,500 acres of forestland outside wilderness owned by the federal government has not been replanted and has been left to turn into brush.

Following the 1992 Cleveland Fire in the Eldorado National Forest, the U.S. Forest Service replanted some lands, and left some untouched in an experimental ecoplot. Today, trees stand more than 17 feet tall on replanted lands, but brush dominates the untreated ecoplot.

Unlike government-owned lands, private forest landowners quickly remove dead trees and other fuels for additional fires and then replant. It is a part of their enduring legacy for their children.

CARB needs to incorporate these common sense steps into the Scoping Plan otherwise the status quo will prevail. CARB needs to show leadership in fighting bureaucratic inertia caused by public resistance to necessary change in forest management. These problems will worsen in the midst of compounding global warming factors. As the Plan so clearly states "Future climate impacts will exacerbate existing wildfire and pest problems in the Forest sector."

We can ill afford to lose the carbon sequestering forests of our state.

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