By Tony Hall
New York foresters hoped their industry could help the state offset its carbon imprint, but an ambitious climate law does not prescribe biomass energy.
If New York State is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 85 percent by 2050, as required by this year’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, it will need its forests.
But it’s not for wood biofuel, lawmakers decided. By design, the legislation omits wood-fired biomass from the list of officially recognized, renewable energy systems.
Rather, New York is counting on its forests to inhale heat-trapping carbon dioxide; to sequester the carbon that cannot be captured by new technology or significantly reduced by clean energy.
“Some emissions, such as those associated with air travel and from some industrial sources, will be difficult to eliminate,” said Jared Snyder, the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s Deputy Commissioner for Air Resources, Climate Change and Energy. “That’s why it’s essential that we identify and take advantage of the opportunities for sequestering carbon in a natural way, in our forests.”
Of course, some representatives of the forest products industry, many of whom attended a conference on the new law and its ramifications in Queensbury at SUNY Adirondack on Oct. 15, appear to have hoped for a more dynamic, lucrative role in New York’s Green New Deal.
“It’s hard not to conclude that this legislation takes a very dim view of the role of sustainably sourced wood as an energy source,” said Charlie Niebling, whose company manufactures wood pellets
There has been considerable debate about the potential for biofuels including wood pellets to help offset the climate impacts from fossil fuels, especially after the European Union embraced wood power as renewable energy. Although burning wood emits carbon dioxide, the industry argument goes, the trees that then grow in its place on responsibly managed forests recapture carbon over time. Canada exports most of its wood pellets to Europe, where they are more cost-competitive because power production is more expensive. Southeastern U.S. forestry companies are also supplying Europe, claiming environmental benefits for using waste wood. But some climate activists, including Vermont-based author Bill McKibben, argue that it doesn’t make sense to count on future trees to offset current emissions when the climate is in crisis now.
“Is there any opportunity for sustainably sourced wood from good forestry operations to play a role in meeting the energy needs of the state going forward?” Niebling asked.
According to DEC officials, the state’s new Climate Action Council and its stakeholder advisory panels will provide opportunities for groups such as the Empire State Forest Products Association to make recommendations that could increase the use of wood products in construction and transportation, among other areas.
The Climate Action Council will also play a role in the preservation and management of the state’s 15 million acres of private forest lands.
By Tim Portz
The combined export value of wood pellets, ethanol and biodiesel for U.S. producers has flirted with $3 billion since 2012, and depending upon how the final numbers shake out for last year, 2016 may very well be the year this milestone is surpassed. For both wood pellets and fuel ethanol, export numbers have never been higher than they are right now, and all three sectors are eyeing foreign markets as a means to significantly grow their businesses.
An analysis of the same data reveals key and informative differences. While foreign markets are an important part of the overall market picture for fuel ethanol and biodiesel producers, exports account for less than 10 percent of annual production while, from a volumetric perspective, wood pellet production in the U.S. is heavily reliant on foreign markets.
Now, the looming question is, what impact will a Trump administration, which campaigned on a promise to revisit the nation’s trade agreements, have on the export opportunities for each of these industries?
Global Market Leaders
In both the fuel ethanol and wood pellet categories, the U.S. can boast the largest production capacity and the largest share of the global export market. In both cases, U.S. exports outstrip the closest competitor by a wide margin. Wood pellet export volumes for U.S. producers were well over 4 million tons, while Canada has yet to surpass 2 million tons of exports. Brazil is the world’s second leading producer of fuel ethanol, and while production and export volumes there vary from year to year, in 2015, its export volumes were about half of what U.S. producers achieved. Additionally, Brazil is a prominent market for U.S. ethanol producers taking over 100 million gallons in 2015.
To make biofuels, tiny microbes can be used to break down plant cells. As part of that digestive process, specialized enzymes break down cellulose—a major molecule that makes plant cell walls rigid. Scientists showed that an enzyme, from the bacterial glycoside hydrolase family 12, plays an unexpectedly important role in breaking down a hard-to-degrade crystalline form of cellulose. Surprisingly, the enzyme breaks apart the cellulose via a random mechanism unlike other hydrolases.
Breaking down cellulose is a major challenge in developing more efficient strategies for converting plant biomass to fuels and chemicals. The discovery of a specialized enzyme that is highly effective at breaking down rigid plant cell wall components could be harnessed to solve this challenge.
RIVERSIDE, Calif. (www.ucr.edu) — Lignocellulosic biomass—plant matter such as corn residues, grasses, straws, and wood chips—is an abundant and sustainable waste product ideal for the production of renewable fuels and chemicals. But breaking down biomass, through a process known as pretreatment, is one of the most expensive and energy-intensive steps in its conversion to renewable products.
In research published recently in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, a team from the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and the University of California, Riverside (UCR) has now discovered new mechanisms that assist in biomass breakdown during aqueous pretreatment.