DOE’s “Billion Ton” Biomass Report – We read it so you wouldn’t have to

(For Billion Ton Study citations, the page numbers refer to the page of the pdf, no matter what the page number says.)

Periodically, the US Department of Energy assesses biomass “availability” for liquid biofuels.  They’ve just published the third version of their magnum opus, the 2016 Billion-Ton Report.   It’s a slog, and let’s face it, reading about corn stalks isn’t all that interesting, but since we do care about clearcutting forests in the name of green energy, we were curious to see what fresh hell DOE had dreamed up now. So we read the chapters that dealt with forest bioenergy, and typed up these notes.

We know what you’re thinking.  “Why just a billion tons? Can’t we have more biomass?”

We’re on the case.  DOE explains that the number is the calculation of what it would take to replace 30% of petroleum consumption with renewable fuels in 2005, when the first Billion Ton study was published (p. 21)

With a mandate of 36 billion gallons to be produced each year by 2022, biofuels are:

Conventional biofuels (corn-based ethanol) – capped at 15 billion gallons;

And, “Advanced” biofuels:

Cellulosic ethanol
Biomass-based diesel
Other advanced biofuels, such as jet fuels (p. 39)

A billion tons is just a projection and the study discusses how to get there. Currently, about 365 million tons (about one-third of a billion tons) of biomass are used as feedstock for biofuels and fuel for biomass-burning power plants (some of which also produce useful thermal energy). (p. 26).

With a limited amount of biomass available, which sector – liquid biofuel manufacturing, or biomass combustion for heat and electricity – is going to get it?  Currently, the ethanol industry is winning, at least on the agricultural resources front:

“The largest industry consumers of biomass are producers of corn-grain-based ethanol located throughout the Corn Belt, Northern Plains, and Southern Plains.   The second-largest biomass use is production of electric and industrial power from wood and wood waste.”  (p. 51)

However, there’s really almost nothing organic that DOE thinks can’t be turned into biofuels in the future. From cornstalks to garbage and plastics, DOE wants it all.

That includes forests. DOE’s projections include a massive ramp-up of tree-harvesting for liquid biofuels, adding to the harvesting that’s already happening for domestic bioenergy and manufacturing of wood pellets that are shipped overseas as a replacement for coal.

The Billion Ton report sees the transition to greater use of biomass – for everything –as a panacea to a great range of troubles:

“A thriving bioeconomy would utilize domestic biomass resources available and convert them to a wide array of renewable chemicals and other products, transportation fuels, and fuel for power production. The impact would be substantial in terms of environmental benefits, with reduced GHG emissions from biofuels, bioproducts, and biopower; energy security with increased domestic production of fuels and renewable chemicals; and economic benefits through the development of biorefinery conversion facilities and markets for rural crops, residues, and wastes. Bioproducts offer substantial economic opportunities and could enable the development of the nascent advanced biofuel industry. It is important for a growing bioeconomy to provide viable markets that encourage the development of sustainable biomass resources. These markets would provide additional local environmental benefits such as improved water quality, reduced fertilizer loadings, improved land utilization, and more-sustainable agriculture and timber resources overall”. p. 40

(We call this the “Everyone Gets a Magic Pony” scenario).

There is at least one rather critical problem with this twinkling firelit vision of the future, and it’s this:  Nowhere in the Billion Ton Study is there an assessment of the net carbon pollution impacts from utilizing all this biomass.

The study’s “sustainability” evaluation will be published later this year, which will ostensibly evaluate greenhouse gas emissions. Given the conclusions of GHG “benefits” in the first part of the study (see above), we’re skeptical.

Meanwhile, reading the Billion Ton study forces some conclusions.

Finding a billion tons of biomass will require a huge increase in forest harvesting, agricultural residue collection, waste burning, and energy crops

Page 26 of the study shows current use of biomass resources, and potential further sources. These are additive – so, for instance, while current forest wood use is 154 million dry tons, the study calls for an additional 103 million dry tons.  For energy crops, the percentage increase is even greater, with crops increasing from effectively zero now, to 239 million tons of production by 2030 under the “baseline” scenario. The high yield scenario calls for even more dramatic increases which the model meets by assuming that crop yields will increase by 1 – 4% per year (p. 23), producing a large compounding effect.  Energy crop expansion is simulated as beginning in 2019 (p. 32).

As there are effectively no energy crops now, forests will provide biomass in the near-term.

“Notably, resources potentially available in the near term include agricultural residues, wastes, and forest resources, totaling 343 million tons in 2017 in the base-case scenario. Conversely, energy crops shown are scarce in the near term, but are the greatest source of potential biomass in the future, contributing 411 million tons and 736 million tons in 2040 under the base-case and high-yield scenarios, respectively” (p. 25)

The study includes current and future forest harvesting for biomass and pellets

“The moderate and high wood energy demand scenarios are assumed to represent increases in domestic and/or pellet export wood energy demands that are not captured in the estimated relationship between fuel wood use and GDP (fig. 3.7). Potential uses include the rapidly growing production of wood pellets for export (Abt et al. 2014)” (p. 88)

It finds that pellets will likely “dwarf” other energy wood uses

The new wood-pellet-for-export industry “has the potential to dwarf all current domestic uses of southern wood for energy in the near term (Abt et al. 2014” (p. 131). Wood for pellet manufacture is already more than 40% higher than wood used for domestic bioenergy (p. 137, Figure 3.23).

And that wood pellet manufacture requires whole trees – not logging residues

Much of the literature on wood energy assumes that logging residues will play a dominant role as a feedstock (Gan and Smith 2006; Perez-Verdin et al. 2009; Perlack et al. 2005). However, the Forisk survey shows that feedstocks for pellets will more likely be what is called “clean” feedstocks—softwood and hardwood small roundwood and mill residues, with only small amounts of input from logging residues and urban wood waste (fig. 3.25)

Only very small amounts of input are expected to come from urban wood waste or logging residues. (p. 140)

Providing forest biomass will require clearcutting several million acres per year

The study’s near-term goal is to harvest an additional 100 million dry tons of forest biomass, or somewhat less if federal land is taken off the table (p. 22).  According to the model, providing biomass under the “medium” scenario (which includes current and projected forest harvesting for wood pellets) will require clearcutting 4.7 million acres per year and “thinning” (70%  removal, p. 112) of 2.5 million acres per year. (Table 3.22 at p. 120).  It appears that this new harvesting would all be allocated to proposed and in-the-pipeline wood pellet manufacture and wood energy projects, with none allocated to biofuels.  Tree harvesting demand for biofuels would come on top of what the study calls “energy” demand, which refers to combustion biopower.

And when they say “residues,” they mean “whole trees” – including merchantable trees

While many people understand forestry residues to mean the tops and limbs of trees harvested for sawtimber, the Billion Ton study considers residues to be “limbs, tops, small and cull trees, and tree wastes” (p. 84).

Logging residues are trees not meeting merchantable timber specifications and tree components, such as limbs, tops, and cull logs. Whole-tree biomass is a combination of merchantable trees and trees not meeting merchantable timber specifications. The whole-tree biomass comes from stand diameter classes without larger, merchantable sawtimber trees. (p. 161)

All residues are taken – none are left to maintain soil fertility

For thinning operations on slopes of less than 30%, the model assumes all residues are harvested for biomass.  (p. 113).

The model requires even more categories of “wood waste” to reach 1 billion tons

Additional categories of biomass (table 5.11 p. 233) include trees cut when forests are converted to other uses, thinnings from non-working forests, unused mill residues, and “urban wood wastes” –  a funky-sounding title for tear-down wood (construction and demolition debris) that’s often contaminated with the worst of the worst – lead, dioxins, arsenic, and chromium.

Despite claims that pellet harvesting drives forest expansion, that’s not what the data show

USDA likes to claim that a booming pellet market will increase forest planting, but so far, there’s little evidence this is the case. What does appear to be happening is that natural forests are losing out to plantations:

Overall, timberland area between 1990 and 2013 has been relatively stable, and large increases in pine plantations have generally been offset by declines in natural pine area.(p. 144)


These data show that timberland area has changed little over the last 24 years, but that the composition of timberland includes more planted timberland than in 1990. (p. 145)

Pine plantations are key to meeting future demand – especially because they’re magic

The study’s high biomass demand scenarios project that supply will increase, partly because pines in the future will grow so much faster.  The models projects this supply response by “increasing the growth rates on new pine plantations in the South by 50%, which could occur from increased use of selected genetic stocks and/or best practices for plantation management.”  (p. 89). (They then state recent research supports this as reasonable).

Increased demand will raise prices and hurt other wood industries

The wood pellet and biofuel sectors harvest the same trees that other industries use. Increased wood for energy will compete “with the demand for wood for conventional products such as lumber, panels, and paper” (p. 93) and especially with the paper and paperboard sector, which will see lower production with increased wood energy demand (p. 91).

Wood prices in some regions will more than double for the pulp and paper sector

The pulp and paper sector will be especially impacted by competition for pulpwood. The Billion Ton study’s modeling scenarios for coastal south show price increases of 140% for small pine roundwood, a key feedstock for the pulp and paper industry. (p. 159).

These findings mirror recent complaints by the American Forest and Paper Association (AFPA) that the wood pellet industry is eating their lunch because pellets are a subsidized fuel in Europe, enabling pellet manufacturers to pay more for feedstock. They commissioned a study that found

“subsidies provided by the U.K. government to electric utilities that use wood pellets as a fuel can significantly distort pulpwood markets in the U.S. South. In particular, if the subsidies paid to the utilities are passed on to pellet plants in the South, the pellet plants could afford to pay more than twice the current market price of pulpwood under the existing subsidy scheme and almost five times the price under the new replacement subsidy scheme.”

AFPA doesn’t even like subsidies here in the US, even though their own members burn biomass to provide onsite heat and power at papermills and other manufacturing facilities:

The rapid increase and cumulative effect of government mandates and incentives for promoting the use of biomass for energy – such as in state Renewable Portfolio Standards, EPA greenhouse gas regulations for utilities, other climate policies and the Renewable Fuel Standard – could upset the forest use/product markets balance.

Finally… Biomass is expensive.

The 2016 Billion Ton study updates previous versions by reporting not only the costs to get biomass to the “roadside,” but also to the “reactor throat” (yes, that’s what they call the biofuel refinery).  The modeling assesses forest biomass that’s available at the roadside at $60, $80, and $120 per dry ton ( ~$33, $44, and $66 per green ton), finding that harvesting costs themselves are $14 – $17 per dry ton (p. 116).  Pointing out that “It is important for the reader to understand that roadside costs are not the total cost of a feedstock at a conversion facility,” the study models a few scenarios for transport from the roadside to the facility, wherein the costs increase.

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