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Conversations from the Four Rivers Region

Expert Answers WKMS Biomass Question

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Chad Lampe asked the following question about biomass:

“Missouri’s Democratic 8th District Congressional Candidate Brett Sowers mentioned last night during a debate that his district is like the Saudi Arabia for trees. He wondered why there aren’t any major biomass productions in his district. I’d be darn interested to learn more about biomass production in our part of the country. What would they yield? Does the effort justify the outcome? Would we lose all of our “treescape” if we adopted this biomass alternative energy model?”

Patrick Westhoff of the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri offered the following answer:

Many people have been discussing the possibility of turning woody biomass into biofuels, and of course we’ve been burning woody biomass for thousands of years. So far, no one has figured out a way to make biofuels profitably from woody biomass—there have been some research-scale efforts, but nothing commercial.

The future of using woody biomass for biofuel production depends on:

1)      Technology—will we discover more efficient ways to harvest, transport, and process woody biomass to make biofuels?

2)      Policy—will existing incentives be continued or increased?  As it is, some of the special incentives for biofuel production from woody biomass are set to expire within the next three years. Investors may be wary of making long-run investments when it’s far from clear what the policy environment will be when plants are actually operational.

3)      What will be the price of oil? Things that don’t make economic sense at $80/barrel oil may look a lot more attractive if oil prices increase sharply.

4)      Lots of other things, ranging from rules governing what can be harvested to the development of competing biofuels.

Woody biomass can, of course, also be used for electricity generation.  As with biofuels, this will depend on prices, policies, technology and much more.

Potential per-acre yields of woody biomass are relatively high, but I’m probably not the best person to ask (you might want to talk to Francisco Aguilar from the Agroforestry program here at MU).

Given all these uncertainties, you should not be surprised to hear that it’s almost impossible to guess the potential scale of activities, and thus what the effect on the landscape might be.


Written by Angela Hatton

October 12, 2010 at 3:07 pm

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