EcoWillow is a financial analysis tool developed by SUNY-ESF that allows users to model the costs and revenues of willow biomass production through every stage of the feedstock life cycle from site preparation through planting, harvesting, and transport to an end user for renewable energy
EcoWillow is a financial analysis tool for willow bioenergy crops developed by the Willow Project Research Group at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science (SUNY-ESF). The tool was first released in 2008 and has been widely used since then, with downloads by over 1,000 users in 70 countries around the world. The original model was based on 20 years of research and development of willow biomass crops at SUNY-ESF. A new version of this tool, EcoWillow 2.0, was released in October 2014. This article summarizes the purpose of the EcoWillow tool, recent updates, willow production scenarios modeled using the tool, and the implications for commercial willow crops.
Understanding the factors and conditions that influence returns on investment is critical to the scale-up of shrub willow biomass and the entire bioenergy industry. Producers and investors need to understand the costs, potential returns, and associated time periods in order to make informed decisions about growing perennial energy crops like willow. Willow crops are harvested every three to four years and resprout from the cut stumps after each harvest. The system generally requires multiple harvests to recoup the initial investment in crop establishment, and one planting (Figure 1.) can stay in the ground for 20 years or more. EcoWillow allows users to model the long-term costs and revenues of willow through every stage of the feedstock life cycle from site preparation through planting, maintenance, harvesting (Figure 2. Willow in the Northeast is commonly harvested using a newly developed system developed by SUNY-ESF, New Holland Agriculture, and partners. This system shown here consists of a forage harvester with a specialized woody-crops cutting header that cuts and chips the willow stems in one pass, and then blows the chips into collection vehicles that follow alongside the forage harvester), and transport to an end user (Figure 3.). There are many variables associated with each stage of the life cycle, and inputs into EcoWillow can easily be changed to reflect user-specific conditions and demonstrate the interaction between variables in the system.
Expected returns on investment are low in the 2014 base-case scenario for shrub willow production, which represents conservative estimates of profitability that should be easily achievable by most growers in the Northeast. When best-practice targets and expected near-term system improvements (such as higher yields from new willow cultivars) are added to this base-case scenario, the model outputs show more favorable returns on investment with an internal rate of return (IRR) around 5%, and a payback period of 13 years (three harvests). The break-even price in this scenario is about $27 per green ton. Adding possible USDA Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) payments (or similar incentives) to the base case produces returns on investment that are similar to the best-practice scenario. Expected returns on investment are most favorable when both best practice targets and possible BCAP incentive payments are added to the base case. In this scenario, the payback period can be as short as seven years (two harvests) after planting, with an IRR around 20% and a break-even price around $20 per green ton. Details on each of these hypothetical crop production scenarios and the associated inputs and outputs are available in fact sheets on the Willow Project homepage (www.esf.edu/willow).
The latest versions of the EcoWillow model and supporting documentation can be downloaded for free from the Willow Project website (go to www.esf.edu/willow and follow the links for EcoWillow). Both English and metric unit versions of the model are available, along with several fact sheets, an instructional video, and contact information for follow-up inquiries. This work has been supported by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), the United States Department of Energy (USDOE), and the US Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA NIFA) through the Northeast Woody/Warm-season Biomass Consortium (NEWBio).
The Northeast Woody/Warm-season Biomass Consortium - NEWBio is supported by Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Competitive Grant no. 2012-68005-19703 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
Led by Penn State University, NEWBio includes partners from Cornell University, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, West Virginia University, Delaware State University, Ohio State University, Rutgers University, USDA’s Eastern Regional Research Center, and DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Idaho National Laboratory.