Amending Biomass Electricity Generation with Transgenic Trees

Introduction

When asked what she remembers about the 1973 Oil Embargo, UMass Alumni Linda Sarkisian laughs and says, “I remember being stuck at school because my parents did not have enough gas to pick me up” (L. Sarkisian, personal communication, November 12, 2013). Linda was eighteen when the Arab countries cut off oil exports to the U.S. in response to U.S. support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War (Koch, 2013). She bitterly recalls her parents cancelling the family trip to Florida out of fear they would be stranded without gas. Her parents knew about the lines of cars across the country idling for hours, their drivers anxiously waiting for their turn at the pump. Service stations were decorated with hand-made signs that read “Regular Customers Only” or simply “No Gas” (L. Sarkisian, personal communication, November 12, 2013). The crisis exposed our deep dependence on fossil fuels and forever changed how the U.S. viewed energy production (Koch, 2013).

Although the U.S. economy was “pummeled”, a positive that emerged was the push for renewable energy (Koch, 2013, para. 4). In response to the crisis, President Nixon doubled fuel efficiency standards and President Carter installed solar panels on the White House roof (Koch, 2013). Since then, we have created energy from wind, solar panels, and biomass. Out of the renewable technologies, biomass electricity generation may prove the least sustainable and biggest threat to our forests (Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, 2010).

Biomass is organic material from recently deceased photosynthetic organisms. Plants store the energy of sunlight in chemical bonds, which can be harvested to generate electricity (McKendry, 2002). The generation of electricity from biomass is called biomass electricity generation, or biopower. The main source of fuel for biopower is wood, but each wood burning technology creates a different end product (McKendry, 2002). Oxygen in a gasification furnace is controlled to low levels and creates syngas, made of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, which can be used in place of natural gas. Pyrolysis heats wood in a furnace devoid of oxygen, which produces syngas, bio-oil (petroleum substitute), and a dark ash substance called char (Friends of the Earth, 2002). Combustion, the only biomass technology that is used on a wide scale commercial level, is an oven that burns the wood without any oxygen limitations (Evans, Strezov, & Evans, 2010). Combustion creates steam, which is harnessed to move a turbine and generate electricity (Evans et al., 2010).

Although biomass creates several useful end products, it is far from a renewable technology (Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, 2010). In theory, as a facility burns a tree and releases carbon in the form of carbon dioxide another tree is growing and soaking up the carbon that was released, making the process carbon neutral. The problem is that we are burning trees much faster than they can grow. Eventually the trees will grow, but in some cases this can take over 90 years (Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, 2010, p. 7). While we are burning more trees than we can produce, biomass is emitting 150% more carbon dioxide than coal (Partnership for Policy Integrity, 2011, para. 1).

Environmental Effects

Despite its unsustainable nature, the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that the biopower industry will increase by 4.5% each year through 2040 (U.S. Energy Information Administration [EIA], 2013, p. 75). This is troubling because industry growth will increase greenhouse gas emissions, but even more devastating is the fact that a 4.5% increase in industry means our forests must produce 4.5% more wood. A recent study produced last year estimated that Massachusetts could supply a maximum of 369,000 tons of wood per year to biomass production (Markowski-Lindsay, Catanzaro, Damery, Kittredge, & Stevens, 2012, p. 5). In comparison, plans for four biomass electricity power plants were recently proposed in Western Massachusetts and would have required a total of 1,483,000 tons of wood each year (The Wilderness Society, 2010, p. 4). The proposals for these plants were shut down, but the pressure on our forests is widespread. It is predicted that the U.K. will soon be burning eight times as much wood as they produce in one year and will have to search elsewhere for wood, endangering forests globally (Doward, 2013, para. 3).

The forestry industry has struggled for years to unsuccessfully meet wood demand with conventional breeding methods. This approach is lengthy since trees have long reproductive cycles and extended juvenile phases. Conventional breeders are also limited to the sexual traits that the trees naturally possess (Van Frankenhuyzen & Beardmore, 2004, p. 1164). Frustrated at the slow pace of conventional breeding, industry now uses a management technique known as short rotation forestry (SRF). In this system, trees are grown on plantations (tree farms) at a rotation of more than 10 years and are harvested when they are 10 to 20cm in diameter (Leslie, Mencuccini, & Perks, 2012, p. 177).  SRF is limited to trees that naturally have a high growth rate, which is why Eucalyptus is the crop of choice. The fast growth of Eucalyptus allows for harvest every 8 years, whereas oak can only be harvested every 120-160 years (Leslie et al., 2012, p. 177).

Industry already receives about 34% of its wood from plantations, but the expanse of these plantations is limited (Van Frankenhuyzen & Beardmore, 2004, p. 1164). Only a small amount of naturally fast-growing trees fit the criteria for short rotation forestry, which means that the system can only be applied in certain climates. For example, Eucalyptus is limited by cold temperature. An unexpected frost, which happens often in New England, would kill the entire plantation (Leslie et al., 2012). Even if we could introduce the Eucalyptus to non-native countries as biofuel, the practice of planting foreign tree species with risk of invasion is a concern for many environmentalists (Dodet & Collet, 2012).

If we could alter our native trees to grow faster we could apply short rotation forestry to trees that are already adjusted to the local climate and growing conditions. This is possible with transgenic trees, which are created by genetic modification. Since 1986 scientists have used this technology to insert and remove certain genes from tree species in order to create or suppress specific traits (Vidal, 2012). They found that inserting genes that altered hormone levels in the trees increased growth and diameter of the trees, producing more overall biomass (Van Frankenhuyzen & Beardmore, 2004). The company FuturaGene has already planted trees that provide 20-30% more mass than a regular eucalyptus (Vidal, 2012, para. 3). Increasing the productivity of plantations by 20-30% would hugely reduce the pressure on native forests as the biomass industry grows (Van Frankenhuyzen & Beardmore, 2004).

Many environmentalists worry about the effect that transgenic trees will have on native ecosystems. A common concern is the cross pollination of transgenic trees with native species, but trees can be genetically altered to mitigate gene flow. A study on poplar trees produced transgenic trees with low or undetectable levels of pollen production (Walter, Fladung, & Boerjan, 2010). Another fear is the effect that tree farms have on soil, but we have already proven that plantations can be managed to support long-term growth since they steadily contribute to the biomass industry (Van Frankenhuyzen & Beardmore, 2004). Transgenic trees may actually improve ecosystem health since they can be modified to resist deadly pests without the use of soil-damaging pesticides (Van Frankenhuyzen & Beardmore, 2004)

Economic Effects

Investing in transgenic trees for biomass electricity generation would drive down costs for harvesters, which would decrease the price that consumers pay for electricity. The profit that landowners are currently making from harvesting non-transgenic trees is not enough to keep a business running. In general, the payment to the landowner ranges from $0/ton to $4/ton (Jeuck & Duncan, 2009, p. 5).  Fast growing transgenic trees reduce the amount of juvenile (young growth) wood, which increases yields and the value of the land by $15 per m2 (Sedjo, 2004, p. 15). Brazil’s current yield for energy crops is 80 cubic meters per hectare per year, but genetically altered eucalyptus trees in can produce 104 cubic meters of wood per hectare (Vidal, 2012, para. 8). Increased yield per acre produces wood at a lower cost, which may reduce the price for the consumer while moving harvesting away from our native forests (Sedjo, 2004)

The benefits to the farmer expand beyond increased yield. Transgenic trees can be genetically altered to resist pests, so the transgenic farmer does not have to purchase pesticides or spend time applying the chemical. A 100-gallon pesticide spray, which usually covers about half an acre, can range in price from $10 to $100. A 63-acre lot would cost $1,260 at the minimum $10 price (Koehler, 2001, p. 1). The benefits of pest resistant transgenic trees include more than the reduced cost of pesticides. Transgenic farmers lose fewer trees to pests and disease, increasing their yields and bringing in more money (Strauss, DiFazio, & Meilan, 2001, p. 276).

Transgenic tree farms along with biomass electricity generation will spur the growth of the economy. A study found that the economy gains $1.50 for each dollar spent on biomass energy, whereas the economy only gains $0.34 for each dollar spent on oil (Timmons, Damery, Allen, & Petraglia, 2007, p. 4). Something as simple as a herbicide-resistant tree can save the plantation industry as much as one billion dollars annually, which will likely decrease prices for the consumer as well (Sedjo, 2001, p. 41). The transgenic tree industry will not displace any current jobs, as it will only fill the void for wood that our forests cannot supply. In fact, it is likely that the creation of an entirely new industry will generate a strong job market. These companies will require scientists to create new seeds, workers to manage and harvest the plantations, as well as people to transport the end products to the biomass facilities.

Proposal

Transgenic trees are the answer to allowing the biomass industry to grow without endangering our forests. ArborGen and FuturaGene are already two companies who have successfully built and grown transgenic trees (Vidal, 2012). As the biomass industry grows by 4.5% per year, there will be an increasing need for wood with in an incentive for these industries to grow. Although the transgenic tree industry will be enticed to expand by economic prospects, there are obstacles in the way these companies will need to overcome.

The current extensive permitting process stifles the growth of transgenic tree farms. Companies must propose a plan to the Federal Trade Organization and then test to find the best genotypes. They next have to fine tune their genotype selection through research and meet with federal regulators to discuss their findings. If approved, the company can then plant their seeds and conduct preliminary field tests. They must present their data from the field tests for regulatory approval by the USDA/APHIS, EPA and FDA. After all of these steps the company is still not certified for commercial growing. To enter the commercial market, companies must then complete a petition for deregulation and only once they attain deregulation are they allowed to sell their transgenic trees for profit. These steps can take anywhere from 10-13 years and can cost 70-100 million dollars (Harfouche, Meilan, & Altman, 2011, p. 11).

A large portion of the total cost (30-40%) is the petition for deregulation (Harfouche et al., 2011, p. 11). The road to commercial approval is so tenuous that ArborGen is the first and only transgenic tree grower to be considered for deregulation by the USDA (ArborGen, 2010, para. 1). Companies should not have to apply for deregulation once they have already conducted tests and collected data to achieve regulation status. The deregulation requires no further field testing and is nothing but a regulatory burden on the growth of the industry (Harfouche et al., 2011, p. 11). Each firm conducts a cost-benefit analysis before considering deregulation and if the cost is too great, the firm will be less likely to go through with deregulation (Sedjo, 2004). We believe that once deregulation is removed companies will be more apt to put money into attaining regulation, which will spur quick growth of the transgenic tree industry (Sedjo, 2004). .

Upon commercial approval of transgenic tree farms, the U.S must provide farmers with subsidies to incentivize the growth of transgenic trees on small farms. Without subsidies for small farm owners, large companies will monopolize the industry. The recent Biomass Crop Assistance Program offered by the USDA provides a subsidy to those who grow biomass feedstock (Sedjo, 2010). This program would allow for small farmers to grow transgenic trees with financial assistance, but would only be practical if the expensive deregulation process was removed. Farmers should be allowed to buy growing rights from big industries who have gone through the regulation process in order to further decrease the burden on local farmers.

Conclusion

This year marked the 40th anniversary of the oil embargo and America is still struggling to break free from fossil fuels (Koch, 2013). As we move away from our dependence on foreign oil, we must try to make new technology as sustainable as possible. Wind and solar are great options for decreasing fossil fuel use, but the biopower industry poses great risk to our atmosphere and especially to our forests. Instead of attempting to stifle industry’s inevitable growth, we should focus on decreasing its environmental impact. This is why the growth of the transgenic tree industry must coincide with the growth of biomass electricity generation. While genetic engineering saves our forests and our wallets, Stanley Hirsch, chief executive of FuturaGene, believes that transgenic technology will simultaneously “displace the whole fossil fuel industry” (Vidal, 2012).

Evan