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Energy crops planted for use at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). The Energy Department hosted a five-day Bioenergy Study Tour of the southeastern United States to highlight innovations that are bringing the region one step closer to a sustainable bioenergy industry.| Photos courtesy of DOE

Energy crops planted for use at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). The Energy Department hosted a five-day Bioenergy Study Tour of the southeastern United States to highlight innovations that are bringing the region one step closer to a sustainable bioenergy industry.| Photos courtesy of DOE

Try to picture the diverse and productive farm country of the future, transformed by the addition of energy crops like switchgrass grown alongside food and commodity crops, like corn and soybeans. Next to the row-crop fields are stands of high-yield, low-input perennial energy grasses grown on soil unsuitable for food crops. These new additions to the agricultural landscape can potentially reduce soil erosion, protect waterways from chemical runoff, create habitats for a variety of wildlife, and provide an additional source of income for farming communities—without impacting food-production efforts.

Next, envision a local network of forest landowners and wood mill processors capable of collecting wood waste from harvesting or processing activities. These forest residues, which include the unused tops and branches of trees harvested for timber, along with the sawdust and trimmings left over from processing wood products, feed into the local energy infrastructure that now includes an integrated biorefinery facility, providing heat and power to nearby communities as well as liquid transportation fuels. With this new market for woody biomass residuals, landowners can generate additional revenue from harvests and prioritize sustainable forest management to protect forest soils and wildlife communities more economically. These examples highlight what the sustainable bioeconomy of the future may look like.

The Department of Energy’s (DOE) Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) works to enable a sustainable, thriving bioenergy industry that protects natural resources and advances environmental, economic, and social benefits. BETO recently sponsored a five-day Bioenergy Study Tour of the southeastern United States to highlight innovations that are bringing the industry one step closer to these goals. Hosted by Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), this first-of-its kind event brought together key industry stakeholders and decision makers from DOE and its national laboratories, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the International Energy Agency, Forest Landowners Association, universities, industry, and regional stakeholders such as landowners and nonprofit organizations to showcase current achievements and spark informed, science-based discussions on how to enhance bioenergy sustainability in the southeastern region.

Before heading out on the first day of the tour, we discussed various opportunities and constraints for biomass production, harvesting operations, logistics, and the use of biomass materials like perennial grasses and woody residues in the Southeast. Then, we toured ORNL's National Transportation Research Center, old growth forests on the Oak Ridge Reservation, and the University of Tennessee Forest Resources AgResearch and Education Center. As we toured the old growth forest, we could see first-hand how these rare, ecologically valuable areas are protected and how they can continue to coexist with actively managed forests.

Our tours at the AgResearch and Education Center revealed how bioenergy could potentially provide new markets for waste wood, manufacturing residues, and materials from forest management activities. For example, dead, diseased, poorly formed and other non-merchantable trees are often left in the woods following timber harvest. This woody debris can be collected for use in bioenergy, taking care to leave behind enough to provide habitat and maintain proper nutrient and hydrologic features. As a result, landowners would see a higher rate of return from their harvests. There are also opportunities to make use of excess biomass on millions of acres of forests with standing or downed trees that may suppress growth, fuel more intense wildfires, or foster outbreaks of pests and diseases. This biomass could be harvested for bioenergy as part of an active forest management strategy, without negatively impacting ecological structure and function.

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Feedstock storage bins at the Genera Energy facility in Vonore, Tennessee. The company has been one of the Bioenergy Technologies Office’s many industry partners who are exploring new ways to handle and deliver high-tonnage biomass feedstocks for biofuels production. | Photo courtesy of DOE

After our first day in Oak Ridge, we left on an action-packed, four-day bus tour, stopping first in Vonore, Tennessee, to visit Genera Energy Inc. One of the DOE’s many industry partners, the visit to Genera’s Biomass Innovation Park, switchgrass fields, and state-of-the-art facilities were one of the tour’s highlights. Genera’s research highlighted the potential ecological benefits of using switchgrass as an energy crop including erosion control, carbon sequestration, and wildlife cover. We also examined their efforts across the entire biomass supply chain. The facility integrates cost-effective strategies for biomass harvest, receiving, storage, separation, pre-processing, compaction, and transportation. They also work with local growers to identify the best energy crops for their land and help facilitate successful and sustainable energy-food crop production systems. Genera’s work is helping to answer many important industry-relevant questions about integrating sustainable, scalable, cost-effective biomass supply chains into our current infrastructure. 

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BETO Program Manager Alison Goss Eng and Sustainability Technology Manager Kristen Johnson speaking with Chuck Leavell, Rolling Stones keyboardist, conservationist, and Georgia tree farmer at the Bioenergy Study Tour. | Photo courtesy of ORNL

Another stop along the way included the Biomass Cogeneration Plant at Savannah River National Laboratory, which uses wood waste to generate heat and power. We saw wood-pellet production operations in Georgia, and privately- and corporately-held forests in South Carolina and Georgia. We also enjoyed a surprise visit from Chuck Leavell, keyboardist for the Rolling Stones and active conservationist, when he made a guest appearance to discuss sustainable forest management.

Overall, the tour gave participants a clearer perspective on sustainable opportunities along the bioenergy production chain as well as the direction for continued work. Bioenergy isn’t one-size-fits-all. To continue growing the bioeconomy in a sustainable way, it is important to consider the constraints, opportunities, and stakeholder-driven goals at local and regional levels. Events such as the Bioenergy Study Tour are one of the many ways BETO works to bring together diverse perspectives to accelerate progress on sustainable bioenergy production.

To see more photos and learn more about the various tour stops, visit DOE’s Flickr album or check out ORNL’s Storify social media feed. Watch the short documentary film, “Sustainability in Bioenergy: A Nation Connected,” to learn more about efforts communities across the United States are making to develop and produce bioenergy that provides multiple environmental, economic, and social benefits.