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Reality check

Advance Mississippi touts state as one of top options in the nation for biomass energy, but Strategic Biomass Initiative director says its could be years before technology is available

Mississippi has 19 million acres of forests, a number that constitutes an 18 percent increase from 30 years ago.

The timber and undergrowth it produces are ideal materials for the production of energy, said Keith Williams, director of the Value Added Division at Molpus Woodlands Group in Jackson.

“We’ve got the wood, the grass, the supply to launch us into a large biomass future,” Williams said.

That was the good news from a roundtable last week that featured some of the state’s biomass leaders. Advance Mississippi, which bills itself as an “advocate for sensible energy policy that will fuel economic opportunity in Mississippi,” sponsored the roundtable.

Two years ago, Forbes magazine named Mississippi one of the five best states in the U.S. for biomass energy. The magazine cited the abundance of timer and its by-products in making the selection. The state also got high marks for its ability to quickly and efficiently move biomass material like woodchips and brush undergrowth. The Mississippi River on the state’s western border and the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway on the eastern border, the magazine said, provide ideal methods of transport.

The future of biomass in Mississippi, though, is still largely undefined.

Biomass technology is still in its early stages of development, said Dr. Sumesh Arora, director of the Strategic Biomass Initiative for the Mississippi Technology Alliance. Arora called it an “immature technology.”

“We’re just now starting to make some inroads into the technology,” Arora said. Bluefire Ethanol, a California company that is building a facility in Fulton, has developed technology that will converts green waste into ethanol. “(Biomass) will definitely have a large impact on the state’s economy in the coming years.”

The operative word, Arora added, is years.

“These are going to be very large projects. It’s not like you can start in your garage and expect to make a multi-million-dollar company like Google out of it. It’s going to require a lot of investment in research and development, a lot of investment in prototyping. It’s a very long product cycle. It’s not easily done. You’ve got to have the right management team in place that can lower the risk for the investors. There has to be a lot of thought that goes into the company as the entrepreneurs are developing these products.

“At the same time, you have to have the policies in place that will help develop this sector.”

Even if the fiscal policies — such as tax breaks and access to capital — are there for biomass companies, the failure rate will remain high. Companies that jump into the biomass market, to this point, have had a short shelf life. They come and go quickly, Arora said, due to the research and development of biomass technology carrying a large price tag and the technology being so elusive.

Dr. Glenn Steele, director of the Sustainable Energy Research Center at Mississippi State, is pursuing that technology. The Center was formed in 2006.

“We wanted to do research that was not going to duplicate research already going on,” Steele said. “We chose not to work on ethanol or biodiesel or the other things that were already commercially ready.”

Instead, Steele and his team are working on bio-oil, bio crude and syngas, gasoline made from synthetic gas materials.

Of those three, bio-oil, which is similar in composition to the cooking ingredient liquid smoke, is the closest to being ready to hit the market.

“We have developed techniques to upgrade it a little bit and turn it into a pretty good fuel,” Steele said, adding that the Center is working with some of the state’s utilities to come up with ways for them to use it. “It has great potential, and right now the economics look pretty good. 

“Of course, all of this depends on economics.”

After the technological hurdles are cleared and the economic viability of biomass is validated, there remains a significant roadblock.

The investment climate has soured the past three years as the global recession has crippled nearly every market sector.

With the production of energy using biomass being more expensive than conventional methods, large amounts of capital are necessary at a time when investors with that kind of money have grown weary of technology that is as undeveloped and uncertain.

“We’re still in the very early stages of this technology,” Arora said. “Let’s not kid ourselves that this is a mature industry.”


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