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Northeast Woody/Warm-season Biomass Consortium

Human Systems in the Northeast Regional Bioeconomy

The Human Systems thrust focuses on stakeholder-identified needs and responses to the development of NE biomass resources. Information available to stakeholders, particularly through the research-extension-education process, affects attitudes and actions. How people view the biomass industry, their aims and objectives in managing agriculture and natural resources, and the incentives and constraints that they face are all critical issues.

Failure to listen and respond to stakeholders is often a key cause of failure in bioenergy projects around the world.43-46 A transdisciplinary team with backgrounds in resource economics and policy, human dimensions of natural resources, rural sociology, community psychology, environmental communication, engineering, and business development will address these issues with the aim of understanding human factors and addressing barriers to regional development of the industry.

Task 1.1. Understanding social and economic constraints

Task 1.1.1. Economic Availability (Langholtz, Jacobson, Searcy, Thomchick)

The Billion Ton Update (BT2)47 evaluated potential feedstock supplies on a county level at different farmgate prices.  As prices offered for feedstocks increase, willow and grass biomass is projected to have greater economic viability, adoption rates, and contributions to overall feedstock supplies.  The BT2 tapped expert opinion regarding yields, improvements, and costs of production, and fixed assumptions on harvest frequency.  Actual market availability will be influenced by yield, management, and costs of production, which are not known with certainty.  An analysis of the sensitivity of economic availability of biomass to stochastic variables such as yield and cost of production in the NE is warranted. 

We propose the following sensitivity analysis subcomponents:  1) production budgets; 2) yield assumptions; and 3) management strategies and harvest scheduling. Building on previous work, we will employ a spatially-explicit model  (POLYSYS) to evaluate response to economic incentives in the development of the region’s biomass industry.48-49 The supply component will reflect expected biomass yields under various physical conditions, establishment and variable costs (drawing on Tasks 1.2 and 1.3) and decision makers’ likely response to biomass prices.26.50 The demand component reflects processing costs (Task 1.3) and competing uses. A sub-component will assess the impact of fiscal and other policies at the federal, state and local levels on economic incentives, including conservation and mineland reclamation programs.51-54 Supply logistics costs associated with moving the biomass from the point of harvest to the conversion reactor will be assessed using biomass feedstock logistics modeling tools developed at INL and later applied in Task 3.4.55

Task 1.1.2. Social Acceptability (Selfa, Hinrichs, Thomchick, Parker)

Social acceptability among landowners and the public plays a critical role in biomass supply.56-61 We will identify and describe the knowledge, attitudes, risk perceptions, ownership motivations and behaviors of local landowners; determine perceived barriers and willingness to engage in production; test the effectiveness of communication techniques in encouraging landowners to participate in the market; and evaluate opportunities and challenges for consolidating bioenergy crop management across multiple land parcels.  The larger public within biomass producing areas may view some types of harvesting and processing operations to be environmentally risky and less socially acceptable with implications for environmental regulations, policies, and consumer markets.62-64

We will monitor trends in local resident knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors with respect to biomass harvesting and biofuel use; evaluate public risk perceptions; develop a community model incorporating risk perceptions to predict community interest and support; and incorporate such public attitudes into biomass availability modeling and mapping efforts.  We will also conduct a business supply management analysis of the landowners that classifies them by amount of biomass supplied and risk of potential disruption to production. Information about social acceptability will also inform NEWBio outreach and education efforts across all thrusts.

Task 1.2. Assess demonstration sites as they pursue scale up of biomass crop production and supply chain infrastructure. (Selfa, Hinrichs, Langholtz, Jacobson, Thomchick, Parker)

The human systems approach involves comprehensive community- and region-wide social and economic impact assessments of the demonstration sites. We will identify, monitor, and address the positive and negative social impacts of demonstration sites over the course of the project with a focus on demographic change, community and institutional arrangements, political and social resources, individual and family impacts, and community infrastructure needs.65-67

Conflicts and synergies with other energy land uses are also of interest, including coal and more recently Marcellus natural gas that underlies our demonstration sites in PA, WV, and OH. Some rural landowners are less interested in conventional farming as a result of newfound wealth from gas leases, increasing availability of abandoned land. We will use an input/output model to estimate direct, indirect, and employment impacts; conduct larger-scale cluster-level analysis, including import substitution and community business matching analysis; and identify potential growth dynamics, local innovation and learning spillovers. Stakeholder engagement at the demonstration sites will be a key part of the research. The willingness of demonstration site stakeholders to collaborate with researchers over time will determine what factors contribute to trust in NEWBio science and its implementation.  Effective models of stakeholder engagement will be assessed.

Expected outcomes

Expected outcomes include:

This information will support extension programs and accelerate the development of productive relationships with hundreds of landowners through commercial partners in the demonstration areas, setting the stage for expanded biomass crop production throughout the northeast region.

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.
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