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Northeast Woody/Warm-season Biomass Consortium

About NEWBio

Background

Biomass has been a resource for energy and materials in the northeastern U.S. for hundreds of years, and has the potential to dramatically increase its role in the decades to come.  The region has high agricultural productivity, well-developed transportation and fuel distribution infrastructure, technologically adept human and financial resources, and substantial demand for advanced biofuels, biopower, and bioproducts.  Perennial energy crops, especially willow and warm-season grasses grown on abandoned and marginal agricultural and mine lands, can play a central role in creating a sustainable bioenergy future for the region.

This region, stretching from New England to the Ohio River, encompasses less than 10% of the land area of the U.S. yet contains over 20% of its population. Although it includes four of the eleven largest metropolitan regions in the nation, the landscape is dominated by rural communities with ample but often underutilized natural resources, with many communities suffering from decades of decline. Given this situation, biomass energy could provide the social, economic and ecological drivers for a sustainable regional rural renaissance.  This is the NEWBio vision.

Read more about the NEWBio Project below.

(View cited references)

Sections:

Partners

People

For a full listing of the NEWBio personnel, please click here.

Consortium Members

The Northeast Woody/Warm-season Biomass Consortium (NEWBio) is a regional network of universities, businesses, and governmental organizations dedicated to building robust, scalable, and sustainable value chains for biomass energy in the Northeast (NE). Driven by the broad societal benefits that sustainable bioenergy value chains could provide, NEWBio aims to overcome existing barriers and dramatically increase the sustainable, cost-effective supply of lignocellulosic biomass while reducing net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, enhancing ecosystem services, and building vibrant communities.

Led by Penn State University, NEWBio includes partners from Cornell University, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, West Virginia University, Delaware State University, Ohio State University, Rutgers University, USDA’s Eastern Regional Research Center, and DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Idaho National Laboratory.

The NEWBio Consortium includes partner companies throughout the value chain from crop genetics to fuel use, as well as state and local agencies, industry associations, citizen groups, and environmental and economic development organizations with an established track record of collaboration and impact (see descriptions of demonstration sites and letters of commitment).  NEWBio is designed to link the production of knowledge with action by understanding and incorporating stakeholder/public values and needs. Over 50 stakeholder organizations have already helped develop the scope and priorities of NEWBio, and are actively forming partnerships for demonstration, deployment, and regional transformation.

Penn State University Cornell University
Delaware State University Drexel University
SUNY-ESF Idaho National Laboratory
Oak Ridge National Laboratory Ohio State University
Rutgers University University of Vermont
West Virginia University USDA-ARS

Advisory Board and Corporate Stakeholders

Please click here for the complete listing of our Advisory Board and Corporate Stakeholders.

Feedstock Focus

Three perennial feedstock production systems will help realize the NEWBio vision: (1) coppice production of willow (Salix sp.), a short rotation woody crop and warm-season grasses, including (2) switchgrass (Panicum virgatums) and (3) miscanthus (Miscanthus x giganteus).  These biomass resources have unique production and harvest requirements, different biophysical characteristics that will affect upstream preprocessing and downstream production of infrastructure-compatible biofuels, yet similar expectations in terms of the scale and type of logistics and supply chain management regimes. Other biomass feedstocks, including winter double crops, forest biomass and crop residues, will play complementary roles in this region, so supply chains must be flexible to accommodate these other options. However, the primary focus for this consortium will be on woody and warm-season perennial energy crops with maximum potential for the region’s widespread abandoned and marginal lands.

Rationale and Significance

Concerns about energy security, environmental and human health, rural economic development, and the need to diversify agricultural products and markets have made the development of sustainably produced biomass as a feedstock for biofuels, bioproducts, and bioenergy a critical national priority. The Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007 established a production target of 36 billion gallons/yr of biofuel by 2022.  The National Renewable Fuel Standard also requires that advanced biofuels and cellulosic biofuels must reduce GHG over their lifecycle by 50% and 60% respectively, as compared with petroleum-based fuel.1

Perennial energy crops are particularly well suited to addressing these national goals2 and have several advantages over annual crops in the northeast, where pasture and forage-based dairy systems have long dominated the landscape. Rocky and sloped soils are more compatible with perennial crops, while perennial root systems better tolerate wet springs and occasional summer drought.  Northeast biomass production has high water use efficiency (biomass produced per unit of water transpired by plants) owing to the region’s moderate temperature and relatively high humidity.

The net energy ratios of biofuel and bioproducts from willow and warm-season grasses range from 6:1 to 20:1,3-6 much higher than ethanol from corn (<1.4).7 Inputs to produce and harvest cellulosic biomass from perennial grasses and willow are small relative to annual crops, a major factor in this positive energy balance.  Increasing yields by improved genetics and management will strengthen these ratios. Perennial bioenergy systems could deliver other environmental benefits, including enhanced soil and water quality and biodiversity,8-9 while being less prone to fluctuations in yield due to biotic and abiotic stresses than annual crops.

map of study areaOver 2.8 million ha of idle or surplus low cost agricultural land10 and 0.5 million ha of disturbed mine land11 are available for deploying perennial energy crops in the NE (Fig. 1). Shrub willow and switchgrass have shown tremendous potential as energy feedstocks on marginal NE agricultural and abandoned mine and industrial land, while preserving fertile lands for food production. Yields from willow and miscanthus are the highest of any biomass species within the temperate zone, with willow approximating 10-15 dry Mg ha-1 yr-1 in a three to four year rotation,12-13 while miscanthus has annual  harvests of 10-40 dry Mg ha-1 yr-1. 14-16

Despite numerous environmental and rural development benefits associated with these perennial crops,17-18 the development of feedstock production systems, markets, and supply systems is in its infancy. The main technical barrier for deployment is the current high cost (relative to fossil fuels) to produce and deliver perennial energy crops to an end user.19-20 Estimates of the current internal rate of return (IRR) for willow production in the NE are 5.5%.19 Advanced plant genetics, traditional breeding and selection, and improved crop management could increase yields 50%, from a base case of 12 dry Mg ha-1 yr-1 to 18 dry Mg ha-1 yr-1, while increasing the IRR to 14.6%.19

Conventional breeding and improved management have already demonstrated a 25% yield improvement in willow and switchgrass, which our partners will immediately demonstrate on tens of thousands of acres. NEWBio will focus advanced breeding and genomics tools on abiotic factors such as drought, ionic stress, and pollution that impact plant growth, especially on marginal land, to achieve the other 25%.21-25

New plant material will be scaled up by commercial partners DoubleAWillow and Ernst Conservation Seeds. For miscanthus seedstock we will rely on our commercial partner Aloterra Energy, leveraging their network with established miscanthus breeding programs.  For all three crops NEWBio will develop sustainable production practices, evaluating alternative nutrient sources, pest management and agronomic strategies to enhance both economic and environmental benefits, quantifying sustainability metrics during both land use transitions and production cycles. The other major economic barrier is harvesting, transportation and logistics operations, which constitutes 40 – 60% of the cost of biomass.19

A complementary study funded by the U.S. DOE is addressing improvements in willow harvesting and transportation by developing a single pass cut and chip harvesting system in cooperation with one of our industrial partners, Case New Holland (CNH). CNH also developed forage harvesting equipment suitable for switchgrass and miscanthus. We are also leveraging public and private sector experience with baling, transport, storage, pelletizing and torrefaction. NEWBio will evaluate these supply chain technologies at field and commercial-scale, use that data to populate technoeconomic and life-cycle models, and then analyze and disseminate alterative supply chain scenarios that assess economic feasibility and environmental impact.

Key non-technical barriers to the deployment of innovative biomass supply chains include low awareness of production and management approaches among potential producers, policy makers, communities and end users26-28 and lack of a functioning and organized biomass supply chain that addresses the concerns and meets the needs of all the stakeholders in the bioenergy system.27-28 NEWBio will investigate these socio-economic, business development and policy issues through our network of large-scale demonstration sites, and deliver integrated extension and education programs to assist farmers, businesses, and organizations build a reliable and dependable supply chain for perennial grasses and willow biomass in the region.

Our advanced biofuel partners are Praxair, American Refining Group, Primus Green Energy, and Mascoma.  Praxair and Primus Green Energy are preparing to build commercial biorefineries near our demonstration areas, while Mascoma is building their first commercial cellulosic ethanol refinery in Michigan and will be evaluating our region for a subsequent facility based on their consolidated bioprocessing fermentation process. Praxair uses oxygen blown gasification of biomass with a methane co-feedstock to produce a high yield biofuel using Fischer-Tropsch (F-T) synthesis. American Refining Group is exploring a variety of processes to produce bio-gasoline, bio-diesel, and a suite of high value products.  Primus Green Energy also begins with gasification, but then uses their proprietary methanol to gasoline technology to produce bio-gasoline and bio-jet fuels. These advanced biofuel commercialization partners are teaming with other NEWBio members across the value chain for commercial demonstrations as detailed below.

NEWBio directly addresses the USDA NIFA’s New Biology grand challenges 2 and 3 by breaking barriers for the expansion of alternatives to fossil fuels while increasing the understanding of ecosystem function and ecosystems services delivery for the rapidly evolving bioenergy industry.  We align with the USDA-NIFA approach as NEWBio seeks to “Secure America’s energy future” (challenge #4) and “Mitigate and adapt to climate change” (challenge #5).  This project directly targets the Program Area Priority and Other Program Area Requirements as outlined in the NIFA Development and Sustainable Production of Regionally-appropriate Biomass Feedstocks 2012 RFA, addressing the barriers and opportunities for sustainable bioenergy systems to improve rural economies, ecosystems, and communities.

Objectives

(Revised September 2015 to incorporate additional elements of the bioeconomy)
  1. Understand the values, legacies, and motivations that drive perceptions and decisions about land management and business development for biomass energy and bioproduct systems to overcome barriers to development of perennial feedstocks.
  2. Generate price-supply curves, facility siting and forward contracting tools to provide entrepreneur and investor confidence in biomass feedstock supply.
  3. Develop and deploy as industry standards sustainable production practices for perennial grasses and short rotation woody crops to improve yield 25% and reduce costs by 20%.
  4. Commercialize the current pipeline of improved willow (Salix spp.) and switchgrass varieties and develop genomic tools to accelerate breeding for marginal land.
  5. Develop harvest, transport, storage and preprocessing systems that increase feedstock value as biomass moves through the supply chain toward advanced bioenergy, biochemical and biomaterial refineries.
  6. Create a culture of safety in the biomass production, transport and preprocessing sectors that addresses machinery hazards and environmental risks to protect workers.
  7. Transform standards of practice for biomass value chains to greatly improve carbon paybacks, net energy yields, soil and water quality, and other ecosystem services.
  8. Deploy safe, efficient and integrated supply chains in three demonstration regions, each providing 50 to 100 tons/day of high-quality low-cost sustainable biomass.
  9. Create learning communities of farmers, entrepreneurs, employees and investors informed about the best practices and emerging technologies in their biomass interest areas.
  10. Provide business support services to generate at least 10 supply contracts and support over 5 new supply chain businesses to harvest, transport and preprocess biomass from short rotation woody crops and warm-season grasses.
  11. Educate students, citizens, landowners and policymakers to increase public understanding of biomass alternatives, including the social, economic, and environmental impacts of sustainable biomass systems in the NE.
  12. Create a culture of opportunity to support corporate commitments for two commercial-scale advanced biomass facilities and encourage many more such commitments in the NE.

NEWBio will assess barriers and opportunities and align the production of scientific discoveries and technology innovations with stakeholder needs, a process we call Knowledge To Action (K2A). K2A provides an adaptive team management process to improve coordination, communication, and impact through effective stakeholder engagement. K2A will enable multiple organizations and businesses to develop successful, sustainable biomass energy systems.

Approach

NEWBio will focus on three biomass feedstocks, which can all be grown on the NE’s abundant marginal agricultural land and abandoned mine land:

  1. Willow (short rotation woody crop);
  2. Switchgrass (warm-season grass); and
  3. Miscanthus (warm-season grass).

Demonstration Projects

NEWBio focuses on several large demonstration projects, each with biomass production and supply chains operating at commercial-scales of thousands of acres, in a specific community with real industrial customers.

Each demonstration area has unique agronomic conditions and socioeconomic contexts that provide contrast across the region, and allow analysis of multiple feedstock business models ranging from corporate-owned and -leased plantations to contract growing to commodity marketing.29 NEWBio will build regional educational and outreach programs using our network of extension educators, business and economic development organizations, secondary schools and regional universities to support landowner decision-making, business development, workforce training, citizen and policymaker engagement, and K-16 STEM support.

These demonstrations provide a platform for transdisciplinary research, education, and outreach that will scale up to a network of additional sites across the NE by the project’s end. The demonstration sites provide building blocks to a region-wide, stakeholder-driven assessment of the potential for dedicated lignocellulosic energy crops to meet fuel demands without compromising broader environmental and social goals. Initial NEWBio commercial-scale demonstrations include:

In addition to these two commercial-scale biofuel demonstrations, additional large-scale demonstrations will provide study sites and market opportunities for commercial production of bioenergy crops for industrial-scale biopower and pilot-scale biofuels in the region:

Extension educators will be located at or near demonstration sites to provide comprehensive stakeholder outreach. They will coordinate project activities that occur in and around the site and facilitate landowner and business involvement in the biomass supply chain. With assistance from other extension educators and applied researchers on our campuses, they will organize workshops, field days, K-16 field trips, professional short courses and e-learning modules to encourage community engagement and ensure a sustainable flow of biomass to the plants.

Technical Thrusts

By investigating several distinct feedstock production and value chain strategies we can observe how bioenergy expansion differs across diverse NE localities depending on natural and human capital, legacies of interest and expertise, and shared future visions.  Coupling stakeholder concerns and interests with our technical and process experts will facilitate cluster development for the bioenergy industry, encourage entrepreneurship, identify barriers, address critical needs, and build capacity. NEWBio’s vision will be achieved through three technical thrusts:

  1. Human Systems;
  2. Feedstock Improvement; and
  3. Harvest, Preprocessing, and Logistics

Each of these three technical thrusts will be closely coupled through five integrative, transdisciplinary thrusts in:

  1. Sustainability Systems;
  2. Safety and Health;
  3. Extension; and
  4. Education; all coordinated by
  5. An experienced, collaborative Leadership and Evaluation team (Figure 2)

Table 1: NEWBio Timeline of Tasks

Conclusions and Impacts

The NEWBio activities will renew the northeastern landscape to supply cost-effective, reliable and sustainable woody and warm-season biomass feedstocks that will encourage the production of advanced biofuels, enhanced ecosystem services, and vibrant communities. The Northeast faces a unique opportunity to develop an extensive, sustainable bioenergy economy focused on its considerable perennial cellulosic biomass production capabilities.

There is tremendous interest and progress already occurring on the ground, with compelling research, education, and Extension needs that can reinvigorate the land grant mission for the region. This unprecedented development will likely include a diversity of technologies at multiple scales, including the production of advanced biofuels, thermal systems, and power production. These technologies and our proposed commercial-scale demonstration approach can be replicated or adapted for other parts of the nation, thus expanding the impact of this project well beyond the Northeast.

The NE has the resources and the motivation to lead the nation to a reliable and sustainable use of biomass for a large fraction of our energy needs.  The NEWBio Consortium will provide the scientific and practical knowledge needed to design a sustainable future, will educate and engage the entrepreneurs, employees, farmers, landowners, students, policy makers, and citizens who will put that knowledge to work, and will support the commercial entities that have already developed in the region and continue to facilitate their interactions to create successful feedstock production to fuels systems.

 

NEWBio (consortium members below) is supported by Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Competitive Grant no. 2012-68005-19703 
from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
NEWBio | Land and Water Research Bldg., University Park, PA 16802 | Members Portal
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