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OBERLIN, OH – Biomass | Biofuel | Bioenergy

April 19, 2010

GEO Testimony to Ohio Biofuel & Renewable Energy Task Force

Also See New GEO Web Page on USDA Farm Bill Green Incentives

The United States has only 5% of the world’s population but contributes a quarter of the total global primary energy demand.  Ohio is ranked sixth in the nation in energy consumption, using 4.0 quadrillion Btus in 2000 (US Energy Information Administration, Bureau of Census, and National Petroleum News, Market Facts, 2002).

In an age of clearcutting, air pollution, toxic groundwater, and dwindling fossil fuels, it is time to look at what we already produce as sources for more sustainable energy.

Biomass feedstocks can be used to manufacture all of the fuels and chemicals currently being manufactured from fossil fuels. “Feedstock” is any organic matter available on a renewable basis for conversion to energy, including wood and logging residues (sawdust, bark, and edgings), farm animal wastes, the organic portion of municipal solid waste (MSW), municipal biosolids (sewage), and certain types of industrial wastes.  Biomass fuels, or biofuels, are solid, liquid or gas fuels derived from feedstock.  In Ohio, this is primarily landfill-to-gas methane, biodiesel auto fuel from soybeans, and ethanol-blend gasoline from corn.  And unlike fossil fuels, which take millions of years to reach a usable form, waste biomass is an energy source that can close the loop on many of our recycling and hazardous waste problems.

Biomass Energy Methods

1. Direct combustion- The burning of dry organic matter, such as woody scraps and grasses.

2. Chemical conversion- Soybean and canola oils can be chemically converted into liquid fuel known as biodiesel. These fuels can be used as gasoline in conventional engines with little modification to the system.  Ohio is the nation’s fifth largest producer of soybeans (“Biomass Energy Program and Current Projects”, Public Utilities Commission of Ohio,

3. Pyrolysis- The heating of organic compounds to produce different gases, such as methane, carbon monoxide, or hydrogen.

4. Anaerobic digestion- The creation of methane by certain organic compounds, specifically municipal biosolids (sewage) and animal wastes (manures).

5. Fermentation- The creation of ethanol by fermenting and distilling sugar solutions, such as those processed from cellulose or carbohydrates.  Trees and grasses are sources of cellulos whereas corn is a source of carbohydrates.  Trees and grasses grown as an energy crop yield 4-5 times more energy than they take to grow (“Biomass Feedstocks: Energy Crops,Food Crops & Agricultural Wastes.”  Environmental Media Services,, and corn as an energy crop yields 34% more energy than it requires in production (Shapouri, Hoesin, James A Duffield and Michael Wang.  “The Energy Balance of Corn Ethanol: an Update.” US Department of Agriculture, Office of the Chief Economist, Office of Energy Policy and New Uses.  Agricultural Economic Report Number 814, July 2002).

As the nation’s seventh largest producer of corn, Ohio has a healthy supply of and demand for this product.  Fifty-two percent of the gasoline sold in Ohio contains up to 10% ethanol, compared to the national average of 12%.  Blending ethanol into gasoline dramatically reduces carbon monoxide emissions (contributors to smog), although research shows that blends of less than 80% ethanol do little to reduce smog overall (“Ozone-Forming Potential of Reformulated Gasoline.”  National Academies Press Commission on Geosciences, Environment and Resources, 1999).  However, the state of Ohio is considered a major purchaser of flexible-fuel vehicles, vehicles able to run on either pure gasoline or E-85, a blend of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline.  Four ethanol production plants have been proposed in the counties of Ashtabula, Defiance, Preble, and Putnam (“Biomass Energy Program and Current Projects.”  Public Utilities Commission of Ohio,

Environmental Impacts

The most obvious environmental benefit of biomass is the displacement of fossil fuel usage, and the corresponding reduction in air pollution and acid rain.  Another beneficial environmental impact is the recycling of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2). The environmental impact of biomass systems, however, can be negative as the amount of CO2 removed from the atmosphere by the photosynthesis of biomass becomes less than the amount produced during combustion and energy production.

Deforestation is vital to the harvest of woody feedstock and its sustainability. However, clearcutting of trees leads to massive deforestation and erosion across the United States and other parts of the world where clearcutting occurs.  Also, terrestrial biomass is the largest sink known for the removal of atmospheric CO2 via photosynthesis, and by removing plant biomass for fuel, we decrease the CO2 fixation capacity of the earth.

Economic Impacts

The expansion of the biomass industry at the expense of the oil and gas industries makes good economic sense.  Assuming a 2% annual increase in consumption, the known world oil reserves could be depleted by 2019 (MacKenzie, James J.  “Oil as a Finite Resource: When is Global Production Likely to Peak” World Resources Institute, March 1996, Updated March 2000.  World Resources Institute website, accessed December 9, 2003.  According to Alan Greenspan’s testimony before the Senate in July of 2003, depletion rates of natural gas supplies were estimated to have reached 27 percent last year, compared with 21 percent as recently as five years ago (Testimony of Chairman Alan Greenspan before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, U.S. Senate July 10, 2003).

Under an expansion of the biomass industry, employment in agriculture, forestry, and industries related to producing feedstock will exhibit significant increases.  And unlike petroleum refineries, whose products must be transported over long-distances to reach the market, the biomass energy industry would be widely dispersed in rural areas.  This means more smaller plant locations, more rural jobs, and fewer transportation costs.

In order for biomass to become a viable industry, several barriers to entry must be mitigated:

1.  We need to build significant, large-scale energy plantations that can supply sustainable amounts of low-cost feedstocks.  (We currently lack such plantations).
2.  We need to increase returns on investments.  This will make it easier to obtain financing for first-of-a-kind plants.  (Currently, the returns on such investments are low and, therefore, financial unrewarding for investors.)
3.  We need to impliment a nationwide biomass energy distribution system to simplify consumer access. (Currently, no such system exists.)

The Future

The US Department of Energy predicts that by the year 2010, over 13,000 megawatts of biomass power could be installed, with 40% of the fuel supplied by 4,000,000 acres of energy crops and the remaining 60% taken from biomass residues (National Renewable Energy Laboratory, 1998).

Information Sources

A large number of associations and publications that address biomass energy are available.  A few of them are listed here.

American Bioenergy Association, 1001 G Street NW, Suite 900 East, Washington, DC  20001, Tel: (202) 639-0384, Fax: (202) 393-5510, E-mail:

Biomass Energy Research Association, 1116 E Street SE, Washington, DC  20003; Tel: (800) 247-1755, (847)381-6320; Fax: (847) 382-5595; E-mail:; Worldwide Web Site:

Institute for Local Self-Reliance, 1313 5th Street SE, Minneapolis, MN  55414-1546;
(612) 379-3815,

National Renewable Energy Laboratory, 1617 Cole Boulevard, Golden, CO  80401;
(303) 384-6979,

Regional Biomass Energy Program,

Renewable Fuels Association, One Massachusetts Avenue NW, Suite 820, Washington, DC  20001; Tel: (202)289-3835.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2002 Farm Bill Renewable Energy Incentives;

U.S. Department of Energy, Biopower and Biofuels Programs,

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