Mapping tools benefit biomass supply chain

By Luke Geiver | May 03, 2011

Harrison Pettit has a multistep plan to create a biomass feedstock operation because, as he told a crowd at the 2011 International Biomass Conference & Expo, “This supply chain will not invent itself.” Pettit, the vice president of business development for Powerstock, told the crowd during his presentation, which included a six-step plan necessary to create a biomass feedstock operation, that, “what I try to make people understand is that agricultural biomass will be a significant feedstock for our bioenergy and bioproducts future.” And to capitalize on that future, he explained the biomass supply chain as the equivalent of a water tributary.

The system he explained needs to have this concept of “coming into one.” The process includes taking hundreds of growers and forming them into one dedicated supply chain that includes grower relationships, field mapping and individuals who have their own preferences and practices, he said. Included in the multistep plan is to identify and profile the supply chain, model the feedstock shed at the lowest cost, execute a demonstration harvest, scale-up harvests that would meet an inventory level, build up the grower network and, finally, manage the operational risks and approaches.

Luckily, there are people like Kristi Moriarty, senior analyst for the Center for Transportation Technologies and Systems for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, who can make that process easier. Moriarty followed Pettit during a panel that examined biomass inventories and pricing, showing the audience how to navigate through a multifaceted tool that can, as she used as an example, show a user available corn stover acres and how many available gallons could be produced from that corn stover in an area as broad as a multistate region, or as small as a 20-mile radius around the city of St. Louis. The Biofuel Atlas has only been available since the fall of 2010, but it has already been used 10,000 times. The system is linked into Google maps and draws on information from the USDA, the U.S. EPA, and the U.S. DOE, to provide users with not only information on bioenergy related factors such as feedstocks or infrastructure, but also the energy demand a particular state has, including the number of oil refineries or coal plants.

“We are hopeful that people are using this to find available feedstocks,” she said, adding later in her demonstration of the map that “when you are looking at a map like this, it really starts to highlight some opportunities.” While updates to the map will be subject to funding provided to government agencies such as the EPA or DOE, she did say that by 2012, she and her team hope to include regions that show dedicated energy crops.

Along with Moriarty, Lee Freeman, director of sales for fiber and energy at Lanworth Inc., also demonstrated another mapping system that is available to the bioenergy industry to be used as a tool for information regarding the status of current agriculture or acres used for farming in parts of the world ranging from China to Alabama. People today want their data “a week ago,” Freeman said.

And to help them get it, Lanworth has developed a mapping system and a change detection analysis system that helps users interpret the data. To show the power of the maps and the ability users will have to locate plausible feedstock locations with up-to-the-week information, he cited the recent disasters in Alabama. “We have images prior to that,” he said, which illustrates Lanworth’s ability to provide up-to-date information while showing the importance of comparing imagery from the recent past with current information. “We know the areas, the anchors and we have all the data,” including landowners, he said of post-disaster maps.