Bioenergy Helps Drive Domestic Economic Growth and Energy Independence

August 21, 2017

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An image with four quadrants showing the different types of jobs within the Bioenergy service sector.
The bioenergy industry is poised for significant growth in the coming years. Researchers have come a long way in improving the efficiency of converting biomass into biofuel, while lowering production costs significantly.
National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Author: Jonathan Male, Director, Bioenergy Technologies Office

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The backbone of a modern, competitive, and productive economy is a secure and reliable energy supply. America’s abundant renewable energy resources can help strengthen this key service sector, enabling the United States to achieve energy independence while opening up new opportunities for economic growth. Bioenergy—which uses readily available non-food biomass resources from our nation’s farms, forests, and waste streams to produce transportation fuels, electricity, commercial products, and high-value chemicals—is playing an increasingly important role in reducing our dependence on foreign sources of energy. As we look into the future, this industry is poised for significant growth—creating opportunities for social and economic development in rural communities, diversifying sources of domestic revenue, increasing the competitiveness of our manufacturing sector, and improving our waste management.

For more than a decade, the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) has served as an important catalyst for the development of the emerging biobased economy, working closely with industry partners to make critical investments in key technologies. These investments have opened up new market opportunities, accelerated rural economic development, boosted growth for small businesses, and created jobs across key service sectors (e.g., agriculture and manufacturing). BETO is focused on expanding our nation’s non-food biomass resources for use in the development of ‘drop-in’ biobased fuels and products that are compatible with existing infrastructure. Bioenergy presents a unique opportunity to revitalize America’s growth and secure our position as a global leader in the evolving bioenergy economy.

Turning Waste into Revenue and Diversifying Incomes for Rural Communities

The United States has the potential to produce 1.1 billion tons of biomass annually; much of which includes waste resources such as corn stover (stalks, stems, and leaves); forestry residues (the unsellable components); sorted municipal solid waste; and wet waste or sewage sludge. This waste material represents a significant cost to either businesses or consumers, in terms of handling and disposal, and most of it ends up sitting in a landfill where it is not reused beneficially. Why not then turn these virtually untapped resources into revenues for local economies, providing an innovative solution to industrial waste management in the process? What’s more, a substantial portion of the estimated biomass potential also includes low-input energy crops such as miscanthus and switchgrass. These crops can be planted alongside traditional crops like corn to help improve water and soil quality, diversify sources of income for farmers, and increase overall farm productivity—all without impacting food and feed production.

Creating Jobs across the Economy and Revitalizing American Manufacturing

Bioenergy has significant potential to serve as a vehicle for job creation and economic opportunity for communities throughout the nation. Biobased activities in the current economy are estimated to have already generated more than $48 billion in revenue and 285,000 jobs in 2014. Estimates show that continuing to develop our domestic biomass resources could contribute nearly $259 billion and 1.1 million jobs to the U.S. economy by 2030.1 These are jobs that can’t be outsourced and cover a broad range of fields, from scientific research to plant operations, business, farming, and manufacturing. BETO has pushed the field of technology with initiatives designed to economically enhance the bioenergy industry. For example, our participation in the Small Business Vouchers Pilot Program provides funding to small businesses to help bring their products and ideas to market faster. BETO has also partnered with the Vehicle Technologies Office for the Co-Optimization of Fuels and Engines Initiative, which seeks to design advanced engines and domestic fuels in tandem. This could drive the next automotive revolution and revitalize our nation’s manufacturing sector. 

Unique Value for Key Industries

Bioenergy provides unique value among renewables, especially for activities that rely on high-density energy sources for transport such as aviation and our naval fleet. Now, the airlines of Southwest, FedEx, United Parcel Service, Alaska, Virgin Atlantic, Cathay Pacific, and United are all soon to be blending renewable fuels for many routine commercial flights. BETO has helped drive some of this market adoption by investing in technologies and infrastructure to enable the cost-effective use of renewable fuels for aviation. For example, with BETO funding, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and industry partner LanzaTech developed a process that converts industrial waste gases into a renewable jet fuel that is compatible with existing engines. LanzaTech is moving forward independently, teaming up with Virgin Atlantic and a number of other industry partners, to complete additional aircraft and engine testing with the hopes of making a "proving flight" as early as 2017.

The evolution of the bioenergy industry is already providing direct economic value for the United States. BETO is helping our nation realize this vast potential, by de-risking novel technologies and attracting industry investments. An energy future that incorporates bioenergy holds real promise for material economic growth for the United States.

Shannon Zaret contributed to this blog.

J. N. Rogers, B. Stokes, J. Dunn, H. Cai, M. Wu, Z. Haq, and H. Baumes, “An Assessment of the Potential Products and Economic and Environmental Impacts Resulting from a Billion Ton Bioeconomy,” Biofuels, Bioproducts, and Biorefining 11, no. 1 (2017): 110–28, doi:10.1002/bbb.1728.

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