Developing Pathways for a Sustainable Biomass Supply

The sustainability of biomass supplies for energy and fuel production has been a topic of ongoing discussion for decades. The completion and commissioning of commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol facilities in 2014 is giving this discussion a renewed sense of urgency. 2014 was the year that cellulosic ethanol moved from something that was five years away to reality due to the commissioning of commercial-scale facilities. Although these facilities are all located outside of Minnesota, there is potential for Minnesota to attract future commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol facilities. Minnesota has 20 corn grain ethanol facilities that would all be good candidates for the co-location of cellulosic fuel production.

Minnesota has significant opportunity to attract commercial-scale production of a variety of advanced biofuel, renewable chemical and biomass thermal production facilities. Although feedstocks will vary from project-to-project the responsible sourcing of biomass supplies that take advantage of Minnesota’s abundant agricultural and forestry feedstocks will be an on-going discussion as we work to capture this opportunity.

To further enable this discussion and begin to examine the enormous amount of private and public research already conducted, the Great Plains Institute hosted a meeting on December 8th at the University of Minnesota titled, “Minnesota Bioenergy Feedstock Development: Examining Options and Research for a Creating a Sustainable Bioenergy Industry.” About 30 participants representing NGOs, agriculture, government, academia, and business spend the day learning and discussing how to minimize environmental impacts of harvesting agricultural feedstocks (like crop residue) and how careful management of biomass supplies could actually improve specific environmental outcomes. Click here for the meeting agenda. Presentations from the meeting are available at the end of this post

During the course of the discussion there were some areas of agreement that emerged among meeting participants:

  • There are responsible ways to manage corn stover harvest: avoid highly erodible land; work with producers who have a nutrient management plan and commit to future nutrient management plans; harvest from only high yielding fields, at least 165 bushels per acre; and only harvest around 25 percent of total residue in a single year.
  • Excessive stover harvest, or harvest in the wrong locations, risks increased erosion, damage to soil, and lost yield.
  • Perennial cropping systems have great economic and environmental potential, but will take longer to scale-up.
  • There is potential for biomass harvesting systems to play a role in diversifying agricultural landscapes and reducing soil and nutrient run-off. Tools for “landscape planning’ are in development which will enable targeted development to address environmental concerns.
  • Feedstock experimentation, such as adding perennials as a feedstock source for fuel production, will not happen until there at least a few biomass utilizing facilities in existence.

There were also some big unanswered questions that will benefit from future dialogue.

  • What is the right way to assure responsible stover management?
  • How can we encourage a gradual transition to increased utilization of perennial cropping systems even though early projects will likely utilize mostly crop residues (or wood)?
  • Although great potential exists for landscape planning and landscape diversification, what steps need to be taken to start down that path? 

GPI will continue to help move this dialogue forward. We believe responsible biomass management is possible and is essential in order to expand bioenergy project development.  

The Feedstock Logistics of Project Liberty:Adam Wirt, Biomass Logistics Director, POET-DSM

Opportunities to Practically Scale-up Perennial Feedstocks: Vance Owen, Director, North Central Sun Grant Center, South Dakota State University

Crop Residue Considerations for Sustainable Biomass Feedstock Supplies: Doug Karlen, Supervisory Soil Scientist and Research Leader, USDA-Agricultural Research Service (ARS)

Biomass and the Envionment: Soil and Water Impacts: David Mulla, Professor and Larson Chair for Soil & Water Resources, University of Minnesota

Minnesota Agriculture Water Quality Certification Program: Brad Redlin, Program Manager, Minnesota Department of Agriculuture

 

New Models for Bioenergy Feedstock Supply and Project Implementation: Nick Jordan, Professor, University of Minnesota