Monday, September 29, 2014

Assisting bioenergy farmers using new technologies for crop monitoring

Monitoring and managing hundreds or thousands of acres of new bioenergy crops can be challenging. For biomass feedstocks like shrub willow, the first few growing seasons after planting are a critical time in the lifecycle of the crop. Shrub willow is a pioneer species that requires full sunlight, unimpeded by competing vegetation, to maximize its potential for rapid growth rates. Cultivated varieties of shrub willow are mostly resistant to major incidence of pests and diseases, but sporadic outbreaks sometimes occur that can impact crop growth. These and other issues that could reduce crop performance need to be identified and addressed as quickly as possible so the plants and root system can become fully established and dominate the site. 

One tool that has recently assisted in these efforts for commercial willow crops in New York State is GPS-enabled cameras and mapping software. Digital cameras with built-in GPS units are becoming more common and affordable. An internal GPS receiver allows each photo taken in the field to be “geo-tagged” with geographic information including the location (coordinates) where the photo was taken, the direction of the shot, and other spatial information. Photos can then be input into a computer and viewed on aerial maps using one of several free software programs such as “GeoSetter” or “Google Earth”. This allows visual information on crops across widespread areas to be conveyed and shared quickly and easily. Extension personnel can communicate the overall health and vigor of a crop across several hundred acres in one map (Figure 1) and highlight areas where additional management may be warranted, all in one computer file easily shared amongst growers and other stakeholders. A picture can say a thousand words, and a series of geo-tagged photos distributed across an interactive map of commercial-scale bioenergy plantings can efficiently and effectively communicate large amounts of information. Using this approach consistently over time also creates a digital archive of photo-maps than can further assist in the long-term tracking of crop development and the effectiveness of various management practices.    

This technology has been an effective crop monitoring tool for extension staff at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF) who are providing technical assistance to commercial growers managing 1,200 acres of willow biomass crops in Northern New York. Crop monitoring reports, centered around geo-tagged photo-maps created throughout the growing season, allowed extension staff to precisely communicate areas of weed competition and pest outbreak (Figure 2) so growers could quickly implement additional management in targeted areas. Over 800 acres of newly planted willow crops, now one-year-old on a two-year-old root systems, are four to eight feet tall and generally in good condition, thanks in part to this new technology and innovative approach to crop monitoring. 


Figure 1. (click to enlarge) A series of geo-tagged photos across five hundred acres of shrub willow bioenergy crops in New York State, displayed in the Google Earth software program. Each thumbnail on the map can be expanded to provide visual reports of crop conditions, weed and pest pressure in precise locations across large areas.

Figure 2. (click to enlarge) Geo-tagged photos across a 100 acre parcel of new willow biomass crops helped to identify and mitigate isolated outbreaks of leaf sawfly in 2014, a willow pest that can completely defoliate a young willow plants if not properly managed.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Supreme court says EPA can regulate Greenhouse gasses; biogenic emissions unclear

In a mixed court decision, the EPA tailoring rule was essentially struck down but not their ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) under the Clean Air Act.  Here is a nice concise summary:

On June 23, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA, striking down one part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Tailoring Rule but upholding another. The Court struck the section of the rule that required Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) and Title V permits for stationary sources based solely on their emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) above 75,000 or 100,000 tons per year (TPY). The Court left another section of the Tailoring Rule intact, however, allowing the EPA to require Best Available Control Technology (BACT) for GHGs at sources otherwise subject to PSD and Title V permits that emit (or have the potential to emit after a modification) over 75,000 TPY of GHGs. Although the first part of the decision is a blow to the EPA’s Tailoring Rule, as a practical matter, given that most of the largest sources of GHG emissions are subject anyway to PSD and Title V permits, this ruling will likely have little impact on the EPA’s implementation of GHG emissions reductions through PSD permit requirements under the Tailoring Rule.

The Tailoring rule was issued by the EPA in 2010 after they were authorized to address GHGs. The bioenergy community was obviously concerned that biogenic emissions were lumped with fossil fuel emissions. At issue of of course is whether biomass is carbon neutral. Realizing this, the EPA then started to develop a separate accounting framework for biogenic carbon dioxide, which is supposed to be finalized this year. The bottom line is large emitters such as biomass power plants and ethanol plants could be subject to EPA regulations. This will actually depend on how the accounting framework shakes out. For more see this article.

Source: Jacobson

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Report on grass energy potential in Northeast

Funded by the Vermont Bioenergy Initiative and prepared by Wilson engineering, comes a pretty comprehensive report entitled 'Grass energy in Vermont and the Northeast. Wilson engineering, a well known entity for its work on developing bioenergy systems, provides a useful overview of potential grass energy markets and recommends a pilot demonstration project. They focus on switchgrass and miscanthus and compare four thermal systems:

  • Closed Loop No Processing : The crop is grown on local acres, baled and stored at the site, and burned with minimal processing in combustion equipment that can handle large round or square bales. 
  • Small Scale On-Farm Processing: As is the case with Closed Loop No Processing, the crop is grown on local acres and baled and stored on-site. A small stationary or mobile pelletizer is used to process grass bales into pellets, cubes or briquettes. T
  • Regional Processing: A central processing plant would purchase baled hay from local farmers, and then grind, dry and densify the grass into cubes, briquettes, or pellets and deliver fuel to multiple commercial or institutional thermal installations. 
  • Consumer Pellet Market: A central processing plant would produce a standardized pellet for use in installed pellet stoves, furnaces and boilers. 

In summary they conclude:The Wilson Engineering team believes that the most likely models for sustainable and repeatable success are Closed Loop No Processing and Regional Processing, where equipment barriers can easily be overcome. Tied to these demonstrations needs to be a parallel public policy effort to establish incentives for all environmental benefits of grass thermal energy, including a thermal renewable energy incentive and a non-point source water pollution incentive...Providing returns to farmers equal to growing corn would require a $576 per acre subsidy in year 1 and $426 per acre subsidy in the first two years of establishment and $46 per acre in each successive year to provide equal profit to growing corn for grain (assuming that the grass energy crop has a value of $80 at the farm gate). The 500 acres in 75’ wide riparian buffers that are outlined above would cost a total of $731,000 in subsidies over 12 years while having a major impact on water quality in the watershed where implemented. The alternative is requiring 75-foot buffers without any financial inventive.

I felt the economic section was the weakest. I would have liked to see break even prices to make the grasses sufficiently viable to offset alternative land uses. Relying on government subsidies is not a good long term solution. Furthermore, they focus their demo on using riparian buffers as primary land for grass production. Its not quite 'marginal' land they discussed where the grasses would actually do well:

Switchgrass or giant miscanthus can be productive on land that is marginal for traditional row crop production. This can include land that was formally in pasture when there was more livestock farming and use of pasture in Vermont. These are acres that are not suited to row crop production due to drainage, rocks or shallow soils, and have been taken over by weeds such as goldenrod and thistle. While they may be harvested occasionally for hay crop or annually brush-hogged to remove woody plants, yields are marginal with little nutritional value as hay. Once established, switchgrass and giant miscanthus take minimal inputs to remain productive and their deep root structure and aggressive spreading from rhizomes tend to crowd out weeds and build soil organic matter.

Nevertheless this is an important paper to grow awareness of bioenergy potential in the Northeast.

Bales of switchgrass. Photo: Jacobson

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

KiOR in trouble

One of the more promising cellulosic ethanol facilities is in trouble. The KiOR plant based In Mississippi was using wood (mostly pine) in its thermochemical processing. They started production in late 2012 and things looked good. But in recent months things fell apart and they have idled the plant until they can improve the conversion process and receive a cash infusion (essentially they bankrupt). It seesm like they key backer Khosla Ventures will keep them going for now.

This article from GIGAOM blog is the best I've read about the situation. Some telling quotes from the article:
  • The problem was that KiOR hadn’t yet crossed the so-called Valley of Death — that expensive, time-consuming, gap between production on a a very small scale and large-scale commercial production. It’s that phase that tends to eat cleantech companies alive, particularly biofuel startups. 
  • had produced 75 percent less biocrude than it had forecasted. Turns out, it hadn’t achieved a steady state of production and it was having some significant problems with quality, with efficiency, and with bottlenecks in the plant.
  • To understand why volume targets are so important, you have to know a little something about fuel production. For biofuels, everything depends on scale, price and efficiency. It’s relatively easy to make small one-off batches of the stuff — a lot of startups and large companies have done this. But scaling the biofuel production up to the types of volumes that the oil industry operates on, at the cheap prices that fossil fuels are sold at, is another story entirely.
It is essential we keep a realistic perspective on when such facilities will be successful. A number of external factors such as the recession and gas prices influence these outcomes. overcoming the so-called 'valley of death' is critical. It seems very hard to even plan to expect the 'valley of death' in this business.
A view to the KiOR plant showing piles of pine logs

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Intercropping switchgrass and pine

I'm attending a sustainable biomass design workshop in New Bern NC this week. The idea is to look at the working landscape in developing scalable biomass production. This is good region for the workshop with an already active woody biomass industry, and picking up steam with the European demand for wood pellets.

Weyerhaeuser, one of the workshop hosts has a partnership with Chevron called Catchlight whose aim is to develop integrated biomass systems. One of their innovative ideas is to intercrop switchgrass with pine. The pine will be grown to rotation for sawtimber, while the switchgrass is annually harvested for biomass. They have worked on it for a few years but nothing is operational or scalable yet. Many issues. Can it work efficiently. Here are some pictures of the intercropping system.
Switchgrass alleys between rows of pine, Planted 2009

A harvested alley of switchgrass - same site as above

Talking biodiversity impacts during field visit

Friday, February 28, 2014

Newly launched KDF search tool takes pulse of bioenergy in Congress

The US Department of Energy’s Bioenergy KDF site has launched a search tool that reveals congressional patterns in bioenergy legislation.  The KDF posted a blog entry describing the Legislative Library tool as one that tracks Congress and connects the industry.

Image captured from

Here, you can search by bill to understand its history and progress as well as the voting breakdown if it has made it to voting status, by committee to see its legislator roster and a list of bills with which it is involved, or by individual legislator to review his or her committee memberships as well as sponsorship and voting history on specific bills.  In most cases, the bill profiles link to summaries of the bill’s major points (and the full text, if you’re so inclined) as well as a list of related bills as identified by the Library of Congress.

This seems like a friendly search tool that is quite intuitive and would help someone quickly take the pulse of bioenergy legislation under specific conditions, whether by the action of their state’s legislators, with an overview of current committees, or by breaking down bioenergy bills by the numbers.  The KDF blog introducing the tool reminds the reader that 2013 saw about 60 bioenergy-related bills proposed, with only 10 proceeding to voting.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Wood-Based Energy in the Northern Forests

Check out our new book!

The book’s goal is to provide the reader with a sense of the state of woody biomass development in the Northeast region, as well as an overview of the issues in scaling up its production and utilization. Most chapters provide practical hands-on advice for the practitioner, so a key audience is anyone developing a woody bioenergy project.This volume of papers grew from a Penn State short course on developing wood bioenergy projects, held in November 2011.  It was intended as a hands-on course to better identify winning scenarios, avoid costly mistakes, and develop biomass projects that are truly sustainable. The course focused around a bioenergy case study where participants actually developed a biomass project. Given the focused nature of the short course additional papers for this volume were solicited to provide the reader with a comprehensive snapshot of wood energy in the Northeast.  What emerged is a fascinating collection of analysis and discussion on some key issues related to wood energy in the Northern Forest, with special focus on the Northeast United States.