Approaching biomass opportunities from a restoration perspective.
Undesirable land. There’s no shortage of it – flood-prone, acidic, or land that is degraded by intensive cattle/agricultural operations. Or perhaps it has suffered from the depletion of freshwater resources or has lost quality soils to degradation and erosion. So, what if we could recharacterize these marginal lands? What if we could restore them and make them more productive while at the same time creating domestic energy?
That “what if” is closer to becoming a reality through the new partnership between The Earth Partners and POET. The alliance was announced at the America’s Grasslands Conference in Sioux Falls, S.D. held on August 16.
The genius of the collaboration is that both partners are bringing years of expertise to the table with the shared goal of restoring degraded land and developing a sustainable supply of biomass harvested using that restored land. This supply of biomass, called conservation biomass, will be used to create renewable energy and has the long term potential
to positively impact the environment.
Meet The Earth Partners
The Earth Partners is a world-wide leader in land and ecosystem restoration. At the partnership announcement, Head Scientist of The Earth Partners and Chairman of Applied Ecological Services, Steve Apfelbaum, voiced his concerns that today’s marketplace doesn’t understand the value of native plant species and diverse ecosystems.
He needed a way to show the worth. So a diverse team including ecologists, agronomists, a series of financial investors, and a team of people who know how to package and finance large-scale conservation projects was assembled. And The Earth Partners was born.
Conservation biomass is one of the ways The Earth Partners plans to bring large-scale conservation projects to the public eye and change the way we view ecosystems.
A Shared Purpose
As an ethanol producer, taking care of the environment has always been a driving factor for POET. They have developed many innovative technologies to use less water and energy in the production of ethanol, lessening the impact on the environment.
They have also spent nearly a decade researching technologies and feedstocks to produce cellulosic ethanol. Although it is the same final product as today’s ethanol, cellulosic ethanol is produced from cellulose – the most abundant organic compound on earth. Project LIBERTY, POET’s cellulosic initiative, uses agriculture residue – the corn husk, cob, leaves, and some stalk – to create cellulosic ethanol.
The knowledge gained from POET’s research into the production of cellulosic ethanol could one day be tweaked and applied to conservation biomass. That’s the ultimate vision.
And today, POET already has a use for conservation biomass.
Unique to most ethanol plants, POET’s biorefinery in Chancellor, S.D. relies less on external sources, like natural gas, for plant power. A solid waste fuel boiler burns up to 350 tons of wood chips each day. It also burns methane gas that has been captured at the Sioux Falls city landfill and is piped to the boiler. Conservation biomass will soon be added to the mix fed into the solid waste fuel boiler.
Eventually the combination of the technologies will power 90 percent of this 100 million gallon per year facility.
Choosing the Land
Conservation biomass will come from land tdoes not compete with food production or other higher value uses. The biomass will be grown in a way that simultaneously restores the land’s soil health and water resources complementing food production over the long term.
From the land perspective the co-benefits are many. There will be improved water quality and flood damage control as well as higher water tables, improved wildlife habitat, improved biodiversity and reduced land management costs.
The Earth Partners have teamed up with organizations like The Nature Conservancy who are experts in land conservation. The Nature Conservancy has identified many of the priority lands that they want to see restored or put back into grasslands that support wildlife.
“NGO and government entities consist of a network that we can go to for advice as we develop conservation biomass projects. They can say that if we restore these particular lands it will help the duck population, or certain bird populations,” Chas Taylor, Director of Business Development of The Earth Partners says. “Then there’s the Army Corp of Engineers who can identify land that they think has a lot of flood risk.”
Apfelbaum also states that in many environments a winter harvest will take place under frozen ground conditions to avoid interference with nesting birds or wildlife winter habitat cover needs.
The Earth Partners will work with the ecological sciences and restoration firm Applied Ecological Service, Inc. (AES), of which Apfelbaum is the chairman and owner, and reforestation company Brinkman & Associates from Vancouver, British Columbia. in the development of conservation biomass projects.
Using Biomass for Energy
Conservation biomass can be burned to produce steam to create electricity or heat. In fact, many states across the U.S. are increasingly mandating power plants to source a proportion of their energy input stock from biomass. It burns with less ash, contaminants and chemicals than typical inputs like natural gas or coal. The biomass can be baled, chipped or compressed into briquettes or pellets before being fed into a solid waste fuel boiler.
Another path is the production of biofuels. Depending on the complexity of breaking down the biomass, some feedstocks could be used in the creation of cellulosic ethanol. POET’s extensive research to produce cellulosic ethanol from corn crop residue will continue to be expanded to convert other sources into fuel.
Over the longer term, POET and The Earth Partners will work together to evaluate other energy pathways for conservation biomass – including to generate heat, power or for liquid fuel production.
According to The Earth Partners, demand for biomass is projected to grow strongly over the next 10-20 years, driven by several forces, including greenhouse gas abatement, domestic energy security policy, increasing cost competitiveness, and ease of transit relative to other renewable energy sources like wind or solar.
The beauty of conservation biomass is that while protecting and enhancing the natural environment, there are economic opportunities to be gained.
POET Vice President of Commercial Development, Scott Weishaar, says POET sees great potential in the partnership with The Earth Partners.
“With conservation biomass, we are showing the compatibility of bioenergy production and sustainable land management,” Weishaar says. “This has the potential to simultaneously create a significant new revenue stream for conservation lands and large quantities of biomass for heat, power and liquid fuels.”
Taylor explains the economic model, “There are the upfront costs of getting access to land and doing the necessary restoration work. That is going to depend on what the land and ecosystem are and what needs to be done. There are the operational costs of actually going in and harvesting conservation biomass. Then the revenue comes from selling the biomass to whoever is buying it for heat and power production or future liquid fuel production.”
In addition to the positive environmental benefits, there’s another potentially huge benefit in soil carbon. And that could be the real economic kicker. If the carbon markets develop and soil carbon is a component of that market.
“Soil carbon is a good measure of overall soil health. As these marginal lands are restored, which does not require fertilizer inputs there is a net addition of carbon in the soil and in the system. As the soils get healthier, the increased amount of carbon can be measured with the Soil Carbon Quantification Methodology developed by The Earth Partners,” explains Taylor. “This can show, over time, that on each acre we’ve increased the amount of carbon by 1, 2 or 3 tons. For example, let’s say in the future there’s a market for carbon and it’s anywhere from $5 to $20 a ton. That’s another value component of conservation biomass.”
Doing the Right Thing
When it comes to the environment, we all want to do the right thing, but the reality is that often it comes down to cost. Conservation biomass may play a small roll in achievingzz the dream of liquid-fuel self-sufficiency. True, this is still a very early market, but this partnership is a way to experiment, pilot and improve the concept to get it to a point where one day it could be done on a large scale.
Biomass contains a compound called cellulose. Providing the cellular structure for trees, grass and all things organic, cellulose is the most abundant organic compound on earth and many see it as the future of renewable energy.
In the energy world biomass includes wood, crops, garbage, organic waste in the form of dead trees, leaves and grass clippings. Biomass can be burned directly to produce energy or processed and refined into biofuels.
Conservation biomass will consist broadly of two sources: the sustainable harvest of native plant species on conservation lands and the removal of invasive species. In the Midwest, some of the common native grass species include Big Bluestem and Switchgrass.
A few of the encroaching species that Apfelbaum is focused on include the invasive Juniperus Virginiana, the Eastern Red Cedar that is choking many of the tall grass prairies. Collecting conservation biomass could be the first cost-effective solutions to remove these woody invaders.