Let the Data Tell the Future

By Kolby Hoagland | January 08, 2013

With the arrival of a new year, we are habitually compelled to analyze the past in order to gain a better understanding of what the coming year will bring. In this week’s Maps & Data Blog, we will look at historical trends in energy consumption with the aim of anticipating where the bioenergy industry is headed. Over all, American’s use of energy, particularly fossil energy, is decreasing. As the first graph below demonstrates, the trend in energy consumption from 1982 to 2000 shows Americans using greater amounts of fossil energy annually. Yet, the growth in fossil fuel consumption begins to plateau from 2000 to 2007, then begins a trend of decline from 2007 to 2011 (Graph 1). During this period where less fossil fuel is being consumed greater quantities of renewable energy, particularly biofuel, were replacing fossil sources to fulfill the country’s energy needs.  Biofuel consumption (fuel ethanol and biodiesel) had the greatest growth among bioenergy sources with an annual growth rate of 22% between 2001 and 2011 (Graph 2). Renewable electricity consumption has steadily since 2001, and growing faster since 2007 (Graph 3). Though the majority of the growth in renewable electricity comes from wind, the issue of intermittency  and the lack of cheap power storage technologies  bodes well for biomass power, which produces baseload power quite well. Furthermore, with the reelection of President Obama, emissions regulations will continue, thus making it costly for coal power plants to operate. If the past predicts the future the historical trends continue, biomass power and biofuels are looking towards a good year in 2013. 


2 Responses

  1. Barnacle Bill



    Hi, Alan Shaw (former CEO of Codexis) recently said this: “The problem with carbon-based biomass is it has a lot of oxygen in it. Half of the mass you lose before you started,” Shaw said. “By the time you get the carbon out, the max yield of the product is at best 35 percent. The feedstock is going to be even more expensive that people thought it would be and it’s going to be a lot harder to get a hold of.” Is he just grinding his new axe as CEO of a natural gas clean energy company, or does what he say have merit? Thanks much for your insight.

  2. Kolby Hoagland



    The larger issue in biomass-to-energy projects is the inherent content water in biomass, which you could classify as an H2O problem. So, I guess he is not wrong, per se, about oxygen; though, I wouldn't diagnose the issue as he did. Furthermore, the energy density of biomass is generally less than fossil sources. For example, a cubic ft of coal is roughly 55 lbs, while a compacted cubic foot of energy grasses (such as in a bale) is roughly 15 lbs. Wood fares a bit better than grasses. Densified biomass (like wood pellets)is roughly on par with coal, but this takes energy. The moisture content and lower energy density of raw biomass fuels seems to put it far behind fossil sources as fuel because of reduced efficiencies in the transportation of the fuel the lower amount of available energy from an equivalent volume. However, these consideration are in the current context, and our society is quickly moving towards a different set of values when looking at energy. The valuation of externalities related to fossil energy is putting bioenergy on a more level ground with fossil energy. Similarly, how bioenergy is being used negates many of its supposed negative attributes in a fossil energy paradigm. Rather than transporting biomass to a large, far off centralized plant, bioenergy facilities are often smaller and more localized to account for higher transportation cost and a lower energy density. I believe Mr. Shaw oversimplified an issue that is far more complex. These complexities are not necessarily negative. In very broad terms, the externalities of bioenergy are less likely to lead to war, ground water pollution and climate change, and more likely to encourage rural economic development, improve water quality, and produce domestic transportation fuel.

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