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The Billion Ton Report

Can we produce a billion tons of biomass per year

to replace 30% of our transportation fuels?

by David Bransby

Several years ago a Biomass R & D Technical Advisory Committee established by the US Congress envisioned 30% replacement of current petroleum consumption with domestically produced biofuels by 2030. If this could be achieved, it would replace almost all the oil imported from the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait), Venezuela and Nigeria (see table below). A group of scientists from the USDA and Department of Energy was subsequently formed to investigate the feasibility of such a vision. In April 2005 this group released their report and the answer was a very resounding "Yes."

Estimated U. S. Oil Imports (% of total consumption)

Canada 10.4%

Mexico 10.3%

Saudi Arabia 9.3%

Venezuela 8.7%

Nigeria 7.1%

Iraq 4.1%

Angola 2.0%

United Kingdom 1.6%

Norway 1.2%

Kuwait 1.2%

Ecuador 1.1%

Algeria 1.0%

Colombia 1.0%

Gabon 0.8%

Equatorial Guinea 0.4%


Before summarizing some of the findings of this report, its readers are cautioned that these are projections based on a series of assumptions. In addition, the world is changing at an ever increasing rate. As a result it is often difficult to predict what will happen next year, let alone in 2030, as is done in this document. However, having said that, the report is the best these scientists could do at this time, and what they predict is at least a possibility.

The report indicates that nearly 1 billion dry tons of biomass can be produced from agricultural lands each year by 2030 without negatively impacting food, feed and export capacity. This estimate includes 428 million tons of annual crop residues, 377 million tons of perennial crops like switchgrass, 87 million tons of grains used for biofuels (mainly corn for ethanol and soybeans for biodiesel). And 106 million tons of animal manures, process residues, and other materials. Important assumptions that were made for agricultural lands included the following:

  • Based on past increases, yields of corn and small grains increase by 50%

  • The residue-to-grain ratio of soybeans increases from 1.5:1 to 2:1

  • 75% of crop residues are used

  • All cropland is managed with no-till methods

  • 55 million acres of cropland, pasture land and CRP acres were used for perennials like switchgrass

  • All manure except that needed for fertilizer is used for biofuel production

  • All other available residues are used

Of some concern here is that crop residues provide about half of the total biomass expected from agriculture, and it is assumed that 75% will be removed. This seems to be a rather high removal rate if preservation of soil quality is expected. The argument is that no-till procedures should allow more removal without soil degradation than conventional tillage. However, only long term experiments can verify this assumption, and there are no such experiments because no-till operations have only been widely applied relatively recently.

On the forestry front, it is expected that 368 million dry tons of biomass can be produced annually. This includes 52 million tons of fuel wood harvested from forests, 145 million tons of residue from wood processing mills and pulp and paper mills, 47 million tons of urban wood residues, 64 million tons from logging and site clearing operations, and 60 million tons from thinning to reduce fire hazards. For this forestry resource estimate the following assumptions were made:

  • All forest land currently not accessible by roads were excluded

  • No environmentally sensitive land was included

  • Recoverable biomass was divided into two categories – conventional forest products (not included in the estimates) and biomass for bioenergy and biobased products

So, in summary, the report predicts that it would be possible to sustainably produce a total of 1.37 billion dry tons of biomass per year (or 37% more than the original vision) by 2030 from crop and forest resources. This would allow us to produce more than 30% of our transportation fuels. The report draws the following conclusions:

"The biomass resource potential identified in this report can be produced with relatively modest changes in land use, and agricultural and forestry practices. This potential, however, should not be thought of as an upper limit. It is just one scenario based on a set of reasonable assumptions. Scientists in the Departments of Energy and Agriculture will explore more advanced scenarios that could further increase the amount of bio-mass available for bioenergy and biobased products."

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Date Last Updated January, 2006