About That Logistics Problem

In 2006 I warned about just how many trees a cellulosic ethanol plant could consume:

Cellulosic Ethanol Reality Check

Let’s consider a typical mid-sized 50 million gallon per year ethanol plant. Using Iogen’s demonstrated yields, the biomass requirement would be 50 million/70 = 714,286 tons of biomass per year. According to Dr. Bruce Marcot, an ecologist at the USDA Forest Service the average Douglas fir yields about 1660 lbs of pulp (90% of the tree’s weight). So, to run a mid-sized cellulosic ethanol facility would require the equivalent of 714,286 tons * 2000 lbs/ton /(1660) or 860,585 Douglas firs PER YEAR. That’s a lot of biomass, and it puts into perspective the issue of a declining EROEI as biomass must be secured from farther afield.

Seems that people are starting to figure this out, as forestry experts are starting to wonder where Mascoma is going to get all of the trees to supply the cellulosic ethanol plant they plan to build in Michigan:

When Making Fuel From Wood, Be Sure You Have Wood

That’s the lesson Michigan is learning as forestry experts question whether the state can grow enough timber to support what could be the nation’s first cellulosic ethanol plant producing commercially viable biofuel from wood. Biofuel startup Mascoma plans to build the $225 million refinery near Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan’s beautiful upper peninsula. It is working with Longyear, a Michigan timber company that owns at least 100,000 acres of forest in the western part of the state.

The million refinery would consume 375,000 cords of timber — a cord measures 8 feet long, 4 feet wide and 4 feet tall – to make 40 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol annually. Therein lies the problem.

Of course if you saw my initial essay, you were aware of this problem a couple of years ago. Pretty soon they will figure out that while this may seem like an enormous amount of wood, at least it will go for a good cause. It will produce enough ethanol to replace 0.02% of our gasoline supply.

7 thoughts on “About That Logistics Problem”

  1. Governor Bobby Jindal has signed into law the Advanced Biofuel Industry Development Initiative, Act 382, the most comprehensive and far-reaching state legislation in the nation enacted to develop a statewide advanced biofuel industry. The legislature found that the proper development of an advanced biofuel industry in Louisiana requires implementation of the comprehensive “field-to-pump” strategy:

    (1) Feedstock other than corn;
    (2) Decentralized network of small advanced biofuel manufacturing facilities;
    (3) Variable blending pumps, in lieu of splash blending, will offer the consumer E10, E20, E30 and E85; and
    (4) Hydrous ethanol.

    “Field-to-Pump” is a unique strategy created by Renergie, Inc. to locally produce and market advanced biofuel (“non-corn ethanol”) via a network of small advanced biofuel manufacturing facilities. The purpose of “field-to-pump” is to maximize rural development and job creation while minimizing feedstock supply risk and the burden on local water supplies.

    For more information, please feel free to visit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Field-to-Pump

  2. Bobby Jindal? He is the “free enterprise” Banana Republican party?
    Sheesh! As RR has repeatedly demonstrated, the market will probably never validate ethanol. It is not price competitive, and has the annoying reality of lowering gas mileage when blended in with gasoline.
    Down in Louisiana, you would be better off working with palm oil plantations to develop “cold tolerant” palms as are being planted in African highlands. The yields are muh much higher, and with the Mississippi flowing through your state, water isn’t an issue. Right now, it is advisable to plant oil palms no further north than the southern tip of Florida, or Cuba.
    Maybe Louisiana should annex Cuba.

  3. As I’ve stated before, energy crops make no sense, until we have almost exhausted the free produce: waste.

    Dare I ask: what will converting 375,000 cords of timber a year into ethanol do to timber prices in the economic pits of America?

    I guess as long as General Motors thinks it can work, all is fine…

  4. RR – you should block the goofy posts of ‘renergie’, aka Brian Donavon. He’s been spamming all of the biofuel blogs with identical cut and paste comments. He’s just promoting his own ethanol technologies. Or maybe just do a quick column on his company and see how it compares to all-stars like Xethanol or CWT. Actually, the Louisiana biofuel legislation is pretty progressive compared to most other states, and there is a role for LA in the biofuels arena with crops like energy cane, but his comments are just spam for his ‘company’.

  5. I think you are being a bit too pessimistic here about availability of feedstock for the Mascoma plant. The biomass is there, and one small 40 mgy cellulosic plant isn’t going to consume all that much biomass, especially if they can mostly access the ‘wastes’ from existing mills. but the real issue is how many more of those kinds of plant you might be able to support in that region. Clearly there are going to be increasing demands for biomass, not only for cellulosic but also for any new requirements for electric power companies to also use renewables. Total demand from current timber production, plus cellulosic, plus biomass power generation will collectively begin to drive biomass prices up, way past the $40/ton DoE always assume for their calculations for cellulosic viability (Biomass costs will probably be closer to $90/ton in reality). Timber / wood product industry is already nervous about renewables making their feedstock more expensive. The other key issue for Mascoma is whether or not they’ll actually get enough investment $$ to build this thing. They have just begun to operate their demo scale plant in NY, and I can’t see many investors wanting to throw money at commercial scale in Michigan without seeing at least 1 year’s worth of data from the demo showing it is viable. I doubt there will be many willing investors, but Uncle Sam will probably bail them out by giving them $80 mil loan guarantee, just like he has already given Range Fuels $150 mil for a dinky 10 mgy plant in Georgia forests.

  6. RR – you should block the goofy posts of ‘renergie’, aka Brian Donavon. He’s been spamming all of the biofuel blogs with identical cut and paste comments.

    If it was a blatant ad, I would. It comes pretty close to that, but I will let it go. If it gets reposted, I will delete.


  7. The biomass is there, and one small 40 mgy cellulosic plant isn’t going to consume all that much biomass,

    The bigger issue is just how little you get from that plant. Presuming for a moment that the energy balance is even positive – and that isn’t a given – the net contribution to the gasoline supply for all of that biomass will be in the region of 0.02%. You could probably save that much by just raising the gas tax by a nickel.


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