Closing the Cottonwood Loop

Biomass supply service offers a closed-loop approach to cottonwood feedstock.
By Lisa Gibson | January 04, 2011

Energy crops have yet to reach their full potential in the U.S., but a new dedicated woody crop supply service could help them gain popularity. It offers a closed-loop solution to a continuous supply of cottonwood feedstock, managed from start to finish by one company.

Virginia-based C2Invest LLC (C2I) is a project development and management company that added the supply service to its portfolio a year ago. “What we do is purely afforestation and high-density plantations,” says Page Gravely, senior director for C2I. “If you’ve got a utility looking for a dedicated, sure supply of feedstock, we go out and secure the acres and oversee the specific planting of those trees for a specific volume over a preferred long-term agreement.”

Many feedstock supply companies hand off the seed to a grower, who takes the responsibility of growing and often delivering the biomass to the end user. C2I, however, is involved in the entire life cycle until it gets to the end-user's door. “Our design is to be more turnkey and full service,” says Carey Crane, a C2I founder. The company secures the land for planting, has a hand in the cutting supply, designs spacing for the plantations, and oversees quality control of planting, growth, harvesting and delivery. “We’re not only the supplier, but the project manager, if you will, for that entire supply chain,” Crane says, adding that C2I works with landowners to secure acreage.

The crops planted currently are in Louisiana, but prime cottonwood growing soil is predominantly in the Mississippi Delta, beginning where the Mississippi and Ohio rivers split in Illinois and extending to the Gulf of Mexico. The regions include eastern Louisiana, eastern Arkansas, western Mississippi and western Kentucky. In those areas, cottonwood can grow 12 to 15 feet per year, allowing for a biennial harvest, Gravely says. “One of the natural benefits of cottonwood is that they coppice,” he says. “It is truly and literally a renewable tree that regrows when it’s harvested.”

Growing biomass coppice is an old practice and in Europe incentives for dedicated energy crops often surpass that of forest materials. So pellets or briquettes manufactured using such crops will bring in a higher price. “It’s a huge benefit,” says Karl-Heinz Schulz, vice president of technology and engineering for BiEnergy Group LLC, an engineering and consulting company. “The utilities can pay more for the pellets than if the feedstock was from [forest-based] woody biomass.”

BiEnergy Group works with energy-from-biomass projects such as district heating and combined heat and power, but also does feasibility, construction, engineering, project development and equipment acquisition for biomass pellet and briquette operations. About 90 percent of pellet manufacturers in the U.S. ship their product to Europe, where the market is better established and incentivized, Schulz says.

C2I has no contracts in place for the supply service currently, but is in negotiations with several entities. It’s no secret that securing a feedstock supply can be one of the toughest aspects of a project, especially in markets experiencing a rise in competition for material. “One of the rubs has been how do you have a security of supply?” Gravely says. “How do you have a consistent supply? That’s where closed-loop really checks a lot of those boxes.”