The National Solid Biomass Energy Economy
America can quickly and efficiently transition to an energy economy based in large part on solid biofuels. This transition will create five million jobs, and stimulate the American economy.
This new energy economy will be sustainable far into the future. If established properly it will allow generations to come access to affordable energy for both heating and electric generation.
Solid biofuel technology is a simple solution to replace fossil fuels used for heating. Furthermore solid biofuels can be used to replace coal in existing coal burning power plants reducing the carbon dioxide, sulfur and heavy metal emissions.
The technology to harvest, process and burn biofuels is established. These technologies have been used in Europe and the United States for many years. Our current petroleum based energy consumption is used for electric generation, transportation and heating. Of these, the easiest technology to transition to sustainable energy sources is heating, through the use of solid biofuels.
This transition can be accomplished within ten years, possibly much faster. The potential value of the economic stimulus to the American economy can be more than 100 billion dollars each year by the end of the next decade.
What are sources of solid biofuels?
The solid biofuels can be produced from any or a combination of the following:
- Low quality wood and other forest industry bi-products
- Annual and perennial grasses
- Waxed cardboard and other materials from the solid waste stream that have no recyclable value
The solid biofuel needs to be harvested and then processed into uniform, high density fuel products.
Fuel densification technologies
Fuel pelletization of wood is a well established technology. The standard is a quarter inch diameter pellet. There are new developments in grass pelletization and densification of larger size fuels. The larger-diameter fuels, called briquettes, are easier to densify and more suitable to burning in larger size commercial/industrial systems. Once the fuel is densified it becomes easier to ship to cellulosic ethanol production planets.
America has millions of acres of land that can be used as a source for solid bio-fuels. According to the 2002 Farm Census between 1997 and 2002 the United States lost approximately 16.5 million acres of farmland. Much of this land is no longer suitable for food based agriculture. However this type of land is suitable for energy crops. Some land can be used for biomass production at the same time it is used for other purposes. Suburban areas can be sources of significant biomass. Furthermore, the economies of bio-fuels are such that it is best to grow, densify and consume the fuels in as close proximity as possible. Transport of more than 100 miles by truck increases the cost per ton considerably. Transport by rail is much more energy efficient but is not available everywhere.
Local bio-waste from parks, road sides, and marginal lands can and should be processed into bio-fuels.
Five percent of the total land area of the 48 contiguous states would amount to 100 million acres that could be used for biomass production. There are other lands in other uses that can also be suitable for biomass harvesting. This includes BLM lands, fire management areas in forests, suburban landscapes, interstate highway medians, marginal to sub-marginal farm lands, and lands currently fallow.
Lands at risk for erosion and marginal land can be used to grow prairie grasses. This would decrease the soil erosion and increase water filtration on these lands.
In order to maintain overall sustainability biofuel production should not decrease food production. Lands currently in viable agricultural production should not be switched to biofuel production.
Yields of biomass
Yields of biomass range from less than one to fifteen tons per acre per year. Forest yield for wood feedstock is roughly one ton per acre per year. Grasses can range from five to fifteen tons per acre per year. Using a low average estimate of five tons of biomass harvested per acre per year the potential yield is conservatively 500 million tons of solid biomass from 100 million acres. This amount of fuel will have the energy equivalent of 60 billion gallons of fuel oil. To put this in perspective, coal production in the United States in 2007 totaled 1,145.6 million tons according to preliminary data from the Energy Information Administration.
Biomass fuel is carbon based, but is part of a short carbon cycle. This means that the fuel that is burned this year will be recaptured from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and become available for harvesting the next year. This means that biomass fuels have no net impact on increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Much of the biomass in America is currently left to decompose, and as it decomposes methane is released. Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Burning the carbon as biofuel may decrease the overall climate change impact.
If grasses are harvested after the first frost and left to dry in the field, there is minimal negative impact to the local ecosystem. Migrating animals have moved south and burrowing animals have nested for the winter.
Some of the solid biomass fuel can be used to replace coal in existing coal fired power plants. No significant changes to the existing infrastructure would be required to make this transition. Environmental benefits of this transition would include an overall net decrease in carbon emissions, a decrease in sulfur and heavy metal emissions and a decrease in coal ash and toxic waste products. The biomass ash should be returned to the ecosystem where it was harvested. Another benefit of biofuel use could be the decrease in coal mining, which is both hazardous and detrimental to the environment.
The biomass harvest needs to be conducted in such a way as to not decrease the long term sustainability of the resource. This can be done using annual and perennial grasses as well as controlled forest management programs. The root systems are not damaged in grassland biomass harvesting minimizing soil loss. If the biomass is left on the land after cutting, the nutrients will leach back into the soil. Several months after cutting the biomass is collected for processing. The ashes from biomass combustion should be returned to the growing areas to close the nutrient cycles. With proper management this resource will be infinitely sustainable.
Harvesting, transporting, densifiying
The biomass can be harvested and transported to a processing plant for between $80 and $120 a ton. The processed fuel can then be sold for between $160 to $240 a ton. This is the energy equivalent of fuel oil at $1.30 to $2.00 a gallon. If the average cost of densified biofuel was $200 per ton, that would create a revenue of $100 billion from the 100 million acres.
Decentralization of fuel processing facilities
The total bio-energy fuel system will be more efficient with thousands of fuel processing facilities spread around the country. These facilities need to be in close proximity to biomass sources. Transporting densified fuel is much more energy efficient than transporting the biomass feedstock. In order to create green jobs nation wide, the placement of the processing facilities also needs to near population centers. This decentralization will also facilitate sustainable management.
Job creation from switching to solid biofuels
The machines used to process biomass from raw material to densified fuel range in size from 1/2 ton to several tons per hour. The three ton per hour size units are used in the calculations below as an example.
To process 500 million tons of fuel each year would require approximately 38,000 plants producing three tons of fuel an hour, 12 hours a day, 360 days a year. This would create 2.5 million jobs for harvesting, processing and shipping the fuel with an average income of $20,000 a year. Another 2.5 million jobs will be created in manufacturing, installing and maintaining solid biomass heating systems.
The contiguous 48 states have a combined land area of approximately 2,959,064 sq. miles. If the 38,000 processing plants were distributed evenly this would give an average land area of 77.8 sq. miles per 3 ton / hour facility, and an average transport distance of less than six miles for the biomass is densified. Once the biomass is densified, the transport of the fuel product is much more energy efficient.
Larger and smaller facilities may be optimal in some locations. Areas with access to rail transport within 50 miles of the densification facility will be able to ship fuel to more distant markets economically.
Because Alaska has a low population density and limited transportation, the fuel densification in Alaska should be focused on areas near population centers. This will create jobs and locally produced fuel. Alaska has been left out of the calculations above but should be included in the National program.
States such as Utah and Nevada have limited access to biomass and will have fewer densification facilities per land area.
Cost analysis of fuel processing
A densification system that will process three tons per hour will cost approximately $500,000 to set up. This would include a hammer mill to crush the biomass, driers, pellet mills, coolers and baggers. If operated at full capacity this system should be able to produce 25,000 tons of pellets a year. At $200 a ton this has a value of 5.25 million dollars. The potential to make money is enormous.
Potential for growth in biofuel technology
Several new developments are happening. The retrofitting of oil furnaces to burn pellets has started. The processing of fuels into larger sizes called briquettes is a simpler technology to operate and less prone to parts replacement. New technologies to burn both pellets and briquettes are also in the development stages. These new technologies should expand the uses of solid biofuels and make them less expensive.
Economic Impact on National Economy
The total value of fuel produced could exceed $100 billion. This transition will replace currently imported fossil fuels. This revenue will circulate through five million new jobs and will be magnified by a multiplier effect. Because these jobs will be spread out across the country and will be most similar to agricultural jobs, the multiplier should be approximately 2.5. The resulting quarter trillion dollar economy will generate significant tax revenues.
A national economic stimulus can be better achieved by sustainable energy development than through tax cuts or highway construction projects. This is because the multiplier effect of biofuels is significantly greater than for highway construction projects. Furthermore the benefits of sustainable energy investment are longer lasting than the short term stimulus benefits derived from tax cuts.
Economic Impact on Regional Economies
The economic stimulus will be felt more strongly in different regions of the country. This is because different regions of the country rely more heavily on different heating fuels. The North East region of the country is the most heavily dependent on fuel oil and LP gas for heating. Fuel oil and LP gas are generally more expensive per BTU than natural gas. Furthermore areas with significantly larger heating degree day loads will also benefit more from locally produced biofuels.
Southern states will be able to produce densified fuels and sell them to both coal burning power plants and also to more densely populated northern states.
Economic Impact per household
In Vermont we have installed pellet heating systems in LIHEAP client’s homes for $1,600. Home heating oil currently costs approximately $3.00 a gallon and an average Vermont family consumes approximately 400 gallons a year for heat. The oil to heat this client’s home would cost $1,200. The same amount of heat from pellet fuel at $200 a ton would cost $660. The annual savings of this transition is $540. This means that the household transition to pellet stoves will pay for itself in less than three years.
How to create this transition:
Phase One • 2009
In phase one, a national standard for densified fuels should be established. This standard should be based on the energy density, ash content, fine particle content and other properties of the fuel. Europe has already established a similar standard. This standard should be developed by universities such as Cornell, a leader in this field, working with the biofuel industry.
Federal money should be made available to transition schools’ heating systems from oil heat to wood chips or other solid biofuels. The federal government should pay for 90% of the cost as long as the project meets air quality and other standards. The money should be made available in grants based on the cost benefit analysis for each project. (Currently over 20% of Vermont’s schools are heated with solid biofuels with significant savings to both local and state taxpayers. This program has also created sustainable green jobs.) This technology currently exists and is ready to be implemented across the country.
A national grant system should be created for universities to establish fuel densification labs. The purpose of these labs is to establish the energy density and ash content of locally densified biomass and further the development of local biofuel technology. Technology optimal in Massachusetts may not be optimal for use in Kentucky. Research needs to be done in each state on species optimization, polyculture, land utilization and the environmental impacts of biomass harvesting and combustion.
These university programs will disseminate the technology, and create jobs. Revenue from these programs should be used to increased demand for solid biofuels. Our recommendation is that this money goes towards the purchase of biofuel stoves and furnaces for LIHEAP clients’ homes. Please see The Vermont Sustainable Heating Initiative’s document on recommendations for the federal LIHEAP spending.
The goal of phase one is to have university densification programs working with the county Extension service in at least 25 states. The extension service is already established to disseminate knowledge about agricultural productivity. Thus they are the obvious method to work with local land owners to maximize biofuel productivity.
National production should reach one million tons by 2010
This University research program should be funded at 50 million dollars a year for four years.
Offer incentives for US firms to develop and manufacture densification machinery in the United States.
Phase Two • 2010-2012
Expand the program based on what is learned from phase one. Establish criteria for optimization of location for densification facilities. Offer Government guaranteed loans to small business and co-ops to set up biofuel densification projects in the optimal locations.
- Establish standards and incentives for coal burning plants to substitute biomass for coal.
- Establish programs to support minority and low income communities to participate.
- Offer incentives for LIHEAP clients to transition to biofuel heating systems.
- Start gradual limiting of LIHEAP funds to non renewable fuels.
- National production should reach 50 million tons by 2012.
Phase Three • 2012-2020
- Limit LIHEAP funding to non sustainable fuel sources.
- Require coal plants to blend biomass into the coal stream.
- National production should exceed 500 million tons.
- The United States can improve our economic viability by increasing our use of solid biofuels.
- Five million jobs can be created with in ten years, possibly faster.
- The environmental advantages from using solid biofuels are a major incentive to making this transition.
- A national economic stimulus can be better achieved by sustainable energy development than through tax cuts or highway construction projects.