Tuesday, May 26, 2015

SUNY-ESF, ReEnergy, Sustainabile Forestry Initiaitve team up for tree planting record

Students, staff and faculty from SUNY-ESF teamed up with ReEnergy, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, community memembers and others to plant 1,622 trees at Sand Flats State Forest in northern NY on May 22. The planting, organized by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), was part of a nationwide effort to break the official Guinness record of most trees planted in one hour. While not yet official, SFI reports that over 200,000 trees were planted simultaneously during a one hour period in 28 communities around the country, shattering the previous record of 40,855. Willow bioenergy crops and forest biomass is being utilized in northern New York for renewable power and heat by ReEnergy LLC, who is committed to sustainable forest biomass procurement and management and has been SFI certified since 2013. More details on the tree planting event are available from the Watertown Daily Times here and a press release from SFI here.

A student from SUNY-ESF plants a white pine seedling at Sand Flats State Forest in Northern NY

Monday, May 25, 2015

Biomass and RFS

Renewable portfolio standards (RFS) or renewable energy standards (RES) are the current topic in the bioenergy world. I'm not sure which acronym is correct or the nuances between RES and RFS as I see them interchanged in the same context. The issue is whether there should be a Federal RES to complement the 29 or so states that already have such standards. The Senate bill call for a phase in approach of 7.5% of energy in 2015 coming from renewables and increasing to 30% by 2030.

These catchy targets - 30X30. In fact in 2013 there was a there was a Energy 20/20 vision also proposed by the Senate. The European Union also has these targets. They had the 20X20 but now they also talking 2030. Its hard to keep up. In the forest and ag sector, we have one too. There is the 25x’25 Consensus Action Plan:
"By the year 2025, America's farms, ranches and forests will provide 25 percent of the total energy consumed in the United States, while continuing to produce safe, abundant and affordable food, feed and fiber."

Its worthy to have targets but its seems we keep pushing back these targets. Its kind of the same deal with climate change legislation. We set targets such as the Kyoto protocol only to revise them ala the upcoming Paris negotiations.

The RFS or any such renewable standard is worthy but my question is what role of biomass in these portfolios. Its clear that wind and solar energy prices keep coming down:
"Over the last 5 years, the price of new wind power in the US has dropped 58% and the price of new solar power has dropped 78%."
Can we say the same about biofuels? Can they compete with fossil fuel prices? Is the state of biofuels commercialization ready to compete? Of course solar and wind have there issues and are not yet displacing fossil fuels to any great extent. It just seems to me that RFS will mainly be met from solar and wind in the near term. Prove me wrong, but until we get a mandated carbon tax or cap and trade on fossil fuels I don't see biomass competing with other renewables, no matter the targets.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Pellets for Africa

On sabbatical, one of my tasks is to analyze the feasibility of pellet production in Kenya. Wood pellets are nonexistent in Kenya. I only know of two companies in Africa producing wood pellets. That doesn't mean there aren't more. But it begs the question why haven’t pellets reached Africa. Touted as clean, cost effective, convenient, and consistent, pellets have taken Europe and the US by storm. Across the northeastern US, the latest and greatest wood-fired boilers are using pellets. Europe has an insatiable demand for wood pellets, mainly from the southern US. If you want a taste of the pellet trade read this http://www.forbes.com/sites/tomzeller/2015/02/01/wood-pellets-are-big-business-and-for-some-a-big-worry/

But where is wood heat energy most used per capita? Answer: Africa. Over 80% of Kenyans still rely on charcoal or firewood as their primary source of cooking fuel. Africa doesn't even show up in global pellet statistics. However, a few forward looking companies are wisely thinking of bring pellet gasifier stoves such as this prototype one to the market.

Wood-based household cook stoves have come a long way from traditional to improved charcoal stoves, But still, improved stoves only reach a very small percentage of the population. Cost and culture are key limiting factors. A key benefit of improved stoves is not only better fuel efficiency but healthier households as they produce less smoke. “Black carbon" as it is called is a huge issue in health and climate change circles. Not to mention the deforestation occurring from charcoal production.  Just read this to see the issue http://www.nation.co.ke/counties/Firewood-kills-14300-Kenyan-women-a-year/-/1107872/2698000/-/fm85pz/-/index.html. The best improved charcoal stoves still produce some smoke so these gasifier ones are touted as being virtually smokeless. Plus all the other benefits of pellets vs charcoal – clean, etc. So what are the constraints?
  • Cheap and ‘really’ illegal charcoal production keeps its true price low, making pellets a hard sell.
  • Changing fuel types with unproven feedstock and cooking technologies especially for people who can barely afford fuel to begin with is a challenge.
  • Pellets seem better suited for larger scale systems – municipal boilers, i.e., institutional use. The distribution issues for pellets to individual domestic cook stoves would be a daunting task given the infrastructure challenges in rural African communities.
  • Pellets are not like making briquettes (which are becoming quite common in Kenya but have their issues). Pellet making requires more sophisticated equipment. They require good maintenance and access to spare parts. One US pellet producer duly noted “grease is your friend.”
Can Kenya and Africa overcome these issues? Adoption of new technologies takes time. Getting the right price points and policies is also crucial. There is a lot of wood waste from sawmills, especially the huge piles of sawdust I saw at every mill I visited. They can’t get rid of it. It’s the perfect raw material for pellets.
Woman carrying bags of sawdust from mill to pile
Also, tree grows really fast here –so short rotation forestry for biomass is potentially a win-win, with a secure market. Will pellets reduce the ‘illegal’ charcoal trade? One of the pluses in Kenya is that people often copy what their neighbor does if it’s working. So getting pellets out there at a competitive price with charcoal and showing it cooks cleaner and more efficiently, will go a long way to sparking the market. Then there is the whole question of in-country pellet production. Nothing some durable equipment and well trained operating and maintenance staff can’t overcome. Is Africa, who truly need better stoves, up to the task and take the next step to pellets? 

Friday, May 15, 2015

Biofuels, Cellulose, and Recalcitrance: Notes on a Lecture by Lee Lynd

(Posted by Sarah Wurzbacher but authored by Dan Ciolkosz):   Dan Ciolkosz of the NEWBio education team attended a May 12 lecture given by Lee Lynd at Penn State University and offers his reflections on the presentation:

"The biological conversion of lignocellulosic biomass to biofuels is not cost competitive."  With this and other provocative statements, Distinguished Professor Lee Lynd of Dartmouth College challenged the audience during his lecture at Penn State to consider new possibilities for making biofuels a competitive reality in the world today.  There are currently five pioneer cellulosic biofuel plants in operation in the world today, and their recoupment of construction costs will take around 20 years.  This probably needs to be reduced by a factor of four or more, and this is the goal of much of the research that Dr Lynd's lab is currently carrying out.  

One of the issues he discussed during the lecture was the cost of fungal cellulase enzymes, which are currently used to break down cellulose before it is converted to ethanol.  He showed that, while cellulase costs were expected to be on the order of 1 cent per litre of ethanol produced, in reality it has been closer to 25 cents per litre, with no signs of costs coming down over time.  

"I doubt that we will ever launch a substantial cellulosic biofuel industry based on fungal cellulase," said Lynd, shocking more than one of us in the audience.  However, almost as soon as he made a case for the problem, he also proposed a possible solution.  

While "Simultaneous Saccharafication and Fermentation (SSF)" has often been touted as the best approach for producing cellulase and biofuel, recent research by Lynd, however, has revealed that another microorganism, Clostridium thermocellum, actually outperforms traditional approaches by a wide margin, which could go a long way towards making the process cost competitive.  This thermophyllic bacterium does not come without challenges, but according to Lynd, some research and genetic engineering may be all that is needed to turn it into a big hit for the cellulosic biofuel world.  

One of the needs is to improve alcohol tolerance of the microbe, and Lynd discussed efforts underway to use genetic engineering to make that change.  Biochemists in the audience drank in the fascinating details regarding metabolic pathways and genetic “knock out” strategies that are currently being tried.  Engineers in the audience did their best to keep up.  

An interesting side benefit of switching to C. thermocellum is that the bacterium is extremely durable, allowing for mid-process "wet milling" that is not only energy efficient, but also increases carbohydrate solubilization and thus presumably enhances biofuel yields. 

Professor Lynd, as usual, was an engaging and fascinating speaker, leaving us with much to consider and many possibilities to look forward to in the coming years.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Shrub Willow for Bioenergy, Environmental Benefits and Rural Development

The Willow Project at SUNY-ESF has released a new brochure that covers all the basics of growing shrub willow for bioenergy, bioproducts and other environmentally focused uses. The brochure can be downloaded free of charge here and paper copies are available on request (willow@esf.edu or 315-470-6775). More information on each of the topics in the brochure is available at the Willow Project website (www.esf.edu/willow).

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

EcoWillow 2.0 – Updated Tool for Financial Analysis of Willow Biomass

by Justin Heavey
Senior Research Support Specialst
SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry - Syracuse, NY

EcoWillow is a financial analysis tool for willow bioenergy crops developed by the Willow Project Research Group at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF). The tool was first released in 2008 and has been widely used since then, with downloads by over 1000 users in 70 countries around the world. The original model was based primarily on over 20 years of research and development of willow biomass crops at SUNY-ESF. A new version of this tool, EcoWillow 2.0, was released in October 2014. Version 2.0 has been comprehensively updated based on the latest research studies from trials across North America, data collected from commercial willow operations, and input from producers currently growing willow in New York State. The harvesting-module of EcoWillow has been updated based on the development and testing of a single-pass cut-and-chip harvesting system under development since 2008 in collaboration with New Holland Agriculture and other partners. A new module in EcoWillow 2.0 allows users to include multiple fields/locations and transport distances in one project analysis, and enables more precise calculations of headlands and planted areas. The new version also includes a more user-friendly design and other improvements based on feedback from various stakeholders in the willow industry. Four crop production scenarios have been developed using EcoWillow 2.0 to show the impact of key variables on costs and revenues. The outputs of these scenarios demonstrate the potential for willow biomass crops to produce favorable returns on investment when best practice targets are employed and/or incentive programs are available.
EcoWillow will continue to be improved and updated as collaboration between producers, researchers and industry partners continues to spur innovation and advance the system. The latest versions of the model and supporting documentation can be downloaded at no-cost from the Willow Project website (go to www.esf.edu/willow then follow the links for EcoWillow). Both English and metric unit versions of the model are available there, along with several fact sheets, an instructional video and contact information for follow-up inquiries. This work has been supported by the New York State Energy Research and Development Agency (NYSERDA), the United States Department of Energy (USDOE) and the US Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA NIFA) through the Northeast Woody/Warm Season Biomass Consortium (NEWBio).

Screenshots of various modules within EcoWillow 2.0 under the improved (hypothetical) crop production scenario that assumes achievement of several best practice targets throughout the production system.