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New Energy Economics: BiomassCompare – A Spreadsheet to Evaluate Biomass Profitability

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Cole Gustafson, NDSU Biofuels Economist Cole Gustafson, NDSU Biofuels Economist
The BiomassCompare spreadsheet compares the profitability of raising a new biomass crop with existing crops already on a producer’s farm or ranch.

By Cole Gustafson, Biofuels Economist

NDSU Extension Service

Markets for biomass are beginning to emerge. At present, two distinct opportunities probably will develop. The first is demand from biofuel processors who will purchase specific types of biomass to convert cellulose to biofuel. Enzymes utilized in the conversion process generally are specific to each biomass type. Several weeks ago, Gov. Hoeven announced the prospect of a wheat straw-to-biofuel plant addition to the Spiritwood Energy Park.

The second emerging biomass demand will be more general. These feedstocks will be gasified or burned directly in heating plants or electric utilities. If the federal government establishes new regulations on carbon emissions and institutes cap and trading, then coal-fired electric utilities will be keenly interested in purchasing biomass as a supplement to coal for co-firing. Augmenting coal with biomass reduces carbon emissions and potentially enables coal-fired utilities to sell carbon offsets, but it depends on the quantity of biomass utilized. In addition to reducing carbon emissions, co-firing with biomass produces electricity from renewable energy resources. Increased production of renewable electricity will enable utilities to meet state renewable energy standards. Xcel energy must deliver 30 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources in Minnesota by 2020.

In the past year, my colleague Ron Haugen and I have been involved in a project sponsored by the Great Plains Institute and Great River Energy. Great River Energy is contemplating co-firing its new combined heat and power (CHP) energy plant under construction in Spiritwood with biomass. NDSU’s contribution was to develop a spreadsheet decision aide to help farmers and ranchers evaluate the profitability of supplying biomass to the Spiritwood CHP plant.

BiomassCompare is available online at http://www.ag.ndsu.nodak.edu/abeng/biofuels.htm. The Excel spreadsheet compares the profitability of raising a new biomass crop with existing crops already on a producer’s farm or ranch. The program is flexible enough to handle harvesting of biomass residues, such as straw and stovers, from existing crops, as well as establishing a new, dedicated crop of annuals and perennials strictly raised for biomass harvesting, such as switchgrass.

To use the program, producers either use existing data in the spreadsheet or enter their own production costs for the biomass crop they are interested in producing. Next, expected yields and prices for the biomass crop are entered. The program then calculates what prices the user would have to receive for traditional crops produced on their farm to be competitive. If the biomass crop is more profitable than traditional cropping opportunities, the user might want to obtain more information about the biomass opportunity.

This program is a variant of CropCompare to which producers already have access. While users can use general production and financial data already contained in the program, they are encouraged to enter their own personal statistics for a more complete evaluation. In particular, costs for establishing a new biomass crop likely will vary considerably across regions and by farmers with differing types of equipment.

In addition to comparing profitability, BiomassCompare provides important information on the energy content of a biomass crop (British thermal units per ton), as well as carbon credits and alkali percentage. Alkali buildup is troublesome when co-firing. The program also has provisions for any coproducts or program credits that may become available following the production of a new biomass crop.

BiomassCompare is still under refinement, so comments and suggestions from users are welcome.


NDSU Agriculture Communication

Source:Cole Gustafson, (701) 231-7096, cole.gustafson@ndsu.edu
Editor:Rich Mattern, (701) 231-6136, richard.mattern@ndsu.edu
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