Prepared by Sarah Wurzbacher, Penn State Extension, Lycoming County, adapted from project report foreword by Dr. Tom Richard, NEWBio Project Director
Over the last five years a consortium of leading universities, national laboratories, private businesses, government and non-governmental organizations worked together to advance sustainable bioenergy in the Northeastern United States. With a focus on perennial biomass crops (specifically, warm season grasses and short rotation willow) and the production strategies, policies, and markets relevant to this region, partners in the NorthEast Woody/ Warm-season Biomass (NEWBio) Consortium pursued a shared vision that biomass energy could provide the social, economic, and ecological drivers for a sustainable, regional, rural renaissance. This article celebrates NEWBio’s progress toward that vision, briefly summarizing the project’s outcomes and accomplishments building robust, scalable, and sustainable value chains for bio-based energy, chemicals and materials across the Northeastern region.
NEWBio’s many partners were organized into eight technical thrust areas targeting a wide range of objectives.
- Human Systems in the Northeast Regional Bioeconomy
- Feedstock Improvement for Perennial Energy Crops
- Harvest, Preprocessing, and Logistics of Integrated Biomass Supply Chains
- System Performance and Sustainability Metrics
- Safety and Health in Biomass Feedstock Production and Processing Operations
- Leadership, Stakeholder Involvement, and Program Evaluation
While the team made tremendous progress toward its objectives, NEWBio also faced stiff headwinds. Chief among these was the plummeting cost of petroleum, which was over $100/barrel when we initiated the project and through most of NEWBio’s first year, but then plummeted at the end of 2014 to less than $50/barrel where it currently remains. Coupled with low prices for other fossil fuels and inconsistent market and policy signals, investors were reluctant to make the substantial financial commitments cellulosic biorefineries require. With the guidance of our stakeholders, NEWBio adapted to this changing environment by exploring supply chains for a range of near-term and mid-term biomass markets, as well as evaluating non-market opportunities to integrate biomass crops in agricultural systems for soil health, biodiversity, and water quality benefits. The flexibility to adapt research, extension and education programs to these changing circumstances generated a host of valuable outcomes with greatly increased relevance and impact.
The legacy of NEWBio includes a transdisciplinary network of highly motivated people and organizations: educators, researchers, business leaders, students, all well prepared and eager to collaborate to build a sustainable bioeconomy for the region. NEWBio nurtured the emergence of that bioeconomy: educating workers, citizens and policymakers, and addressing critical technical, economics, social and cultural challenges required to launch businesses, build industries, and transform communities. This is a powerful legacy, and one that we are confident will be leveraged in many ways as the region continues its trajectory toward a sustainable future.
NEWBio is grateful for the inspiration and support provided by the USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA), to the staff of NIFA’s Sustainable Bioenergy and Bioproducts Challenge Area for their strategic insights and assistance and to the leaders and members of the other Coordinated Agricultural Projects that were our guides and partners on this journey. We also thank the many stakeholders that engaged with NEWBio, from Fortune 500 companies to individual citizens, all of whom recognized the critical role of the emerging bioeconomy for both rural development and a sustainable environment.