Densified biomass can cost-effectively mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and address energy security in thermal applications

T. O. Wilson, F. M. McNeal, S. Spatari, D. G Abler, and P. R. Adler

Environmental Science and Technology (17 January 2012)

DOI: 10.1021/es202752b

Regional supplies of biomass are currently being evaluated as feedstocks in energy applications to meet renewable portfolio (RPS) and low carbon fuel standards. We investigate the life cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and associated abatement costs resulting from using densified switchgrass for thermal and electrical energy. In contrast to the large and positive abatement costs for using biomass in electricity generation ($149/Mg CO(2)e) due to the low cost of coal and high feedstock and power plant operation costs, abatement costs for replacing fuel oil with biomass in thermal applications are large and negative (-$52 to -$92/Mg CO(2)e), resulting in cost savings. Replacing fuel oil with biomass in thermal applications results in least cost reductions compared to replacing coal in electricity generation, an alternative that has gained attention due to RPS legislation and the centralized production model most often considered in U.S. policy. Our estimates indicate a more than doubling of liquid fuel displacement when switchgrass is substituted for fuel oil as opposed to gasoline, suggesting that, in certain U.S. locations, such as the northeast, densified biomass would help to significantly decarbonize energy supply with regionally sourced feedstock, while also reducing imported oil. On the basis of supply projections from the recently released Billion Ton Report, there will be enough sustainably harvested biomass available in the northeast by 2022 to offset the entirety of heating oil demand in the same region. This will save NE consumers between $2.3 and $3.9 billion annually. Diverting the same resource to electricity generation would cost the region $7.7 billion per year. While there is great need for finding low carbon substitutes for coal power and liquid transportation fuels in the U.S., we argue that in certain regions it makes cost- (and GHG mitigation-) effective sense to phase out liquid heating fuels with locally produced biomass first.

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