Biomass Viable At $140 A Ton, Study Says

If we really want to ramp up fuel production from biomass while also meeting demand for food, we’re going to have to pay. That’s the conclusion of a new study from University of Illinois researchers, whose most optimistic scenario – one that includes bringing high-yielding grasses such as miscanthus into the equation – suggests the price for biomass would have to rise above $140 per metric ton to produce enough to replace 30 percent of petroleum consumption by 2030.

That’s a big leap from current price assumptions. “Most studies consider costs in the range of $40 to $50 per ton, which is fine when we’re talking about biomass production to meet near-term targets for cellulosic biofuel production,” said Madhu Khanna, a professor of agricultural and consumer economics at Illinois. “But if we really want to get to the 30 percent replacement of gasoline, at least with the current technology, then that’s going to be much more costly.”

image via Iowa State University

Khanna said that without policy support, perennial grasses won’t be able to compete for prime agricultural land against corn, soybeans and wheat. Which raises the question: Will encouraging biomass inevitably squeeze food-crop production and raise food prices? Khanna said not necessarily.

“That concern is much more prevalent when we talk about first-generation biofuels like corn-based ethanol,” she said. “But for second-generation fuels, you can use crop residues as well as dedicated energy crops that can be grown on marginal land. This reduces the need to divert cropland away from food crop production. I’m optimistic that we can get considerable amounts of biomass without disrupting food production.”

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.