The Billion Ton Study
Many reports penned for the U.S. government sit on shelves and collect dust. But government officials have been repeatedly citing an ORNL study on the possibilities for growing and gathering biomass on American soil, making the report a potential collector's item.
In 2004 ORNL's Bob Perlack, Lynn Wright, Anthony Turhollow and Robin Graham began preparing a report for the Departments of Energy and Agriculture that addressed this question: Are the U.S. land resources capable of producing a sustainable supply of biomass sufficient to displace at least 30 percent of the country's current petroleum consumption? The answer given in the report published in April 2005 is yes. "Looking at just forestland and agricultural land," the ORNL authors wrote, "this study found over 1.3 billion dry tons per year of biomass potential—enough to produce biofuels to meet more than one-third of the current demand for transportation fuels."
The "Billion Ton" study, as it came to be called, had a transforming effect, nudging the federal government into a policy shift.
President George W. Bush mentioned the report in a speech he made on energy in May 2005. "A recent study by Oak Ridge National Laboratory projected that biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel could provide about a fifth of America's transportation fuel within 25 years," the President said in remarks at the Virginia Biodiesel Refinery at West Point, Va. Fast forward to the President's State of the Union address on January 31, 2006, when he proclaimed, "We'll also fund additional research in cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol, not just from corn, but from wood chips and stalks or switchgrass."
The "Biomass as Feedstock for a Bioenergy and Bioproducts industry: The Technical Feasibility of a Billion-Ton Annual supply" report was an impetus for the 2006 DOE initiative to produce some 60 billion gallons of ethanol from biomass to replace 30 percent of the petroleum used for transportation fuel by 2030.
Jonathan Mielenz, leader of the Bioconversion Science and Technology Group in ORNL's Biosciences Division, says, "The Billion Ton study was a critical contribution because it provided evidence for the biomass ethanol and chemical industries that a real and substantial resource base could be potentially available from which to build their businesses. This knowledge gave decision makers in government and elsewhere credible arguments to support funding and policy decisions needed for a fledgling biorefinery industry."
Offering possible reasons for the report's success, Perlack says, "We chose to focus on biomass resources and avoid discussing policy and cost. We kept the study narrow and simple. And best of all, the report came out just when gasoline prices started their long climb." —Carolyn Krause
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