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Michigan Energy
Article #126, December 2007
By Bill Cook

     We hear a lot about alternative energy, biomass, ethanol, and related topics. There are a host of existing technologies, quite a few emerging technologies, and many sources of feedstocks. Certainly mind-boggling. Within the bigger picture, utilizing wood can be one of Michigan's strong suits.

     Amidst all the flying words and ideas, it may be helpful to understand the magnitude of the situation that causes all the fuss. Arguing about whether or not ethanol is a good product is less important than considering why we need something like ethanol in the first place.

     Michigan consumes an incredible amount of energy, not to mention the rest of the country, Europe, India, China, and the rest of the world. The U.S. Department of Energy says Michigan consumed 3.1 quadrillion btu equivalents in 2004. That's roughly 60 percent of all Michigan standing timber. It's also equivalent to 16.5 times the annual forest growth.

     Where does Michigan's energy come from? Oil, natural gas, and coal make-up 87 percent of the supply. All of these are fossil fuels with variable amounts of longer-term availability and extraction costs. They remain the lowest hanging fruit to feed our expanding energy diet. However, some folks have heralded warnings about fossil fuel consumption.

     Some say wind and solar might be the answer. Others talk a lot about woody biomass, ethanol, and other products. However, some simple calculations show that we would need 20-30 thousand wind turbines like the ones at the Mackinac Bridge just to satisfy the amount of residential retail electricity consumption, and that's less than four percent of Michigan's entire energy budget.

     To heat our homes with solar energy, we would need to cover the area of a county with solar panels. And, home heating is only 13-14 percent of Michigan's energy demand. If every household in Michigan burned wood, we would need more than twice the amount of wood that grows in Michigan each year. None of these calculations make adjustments for inefficiencies, production technologies, processing, transportation, etc.

     Gas engines use only about 25% of the energy in the gas. Some suggest that electric cars are efficient, which they are. However, generating and moving the electricity to the car is not so efficient.

     If all the gasoline used in Michigan were replaced by electricity, our electric consumption would jump 50 percent. The energy in the gasoline represents the equivalent of around 30 million tons of coal, or 570 billion cubic feet of natural gas, or 60 million megawatts of nuclear power. The total amount of feedstock would need to be much higher because of the energy losses between the raw materials and the electric outlet. Most current power plants send about 70% of the energy up the stacks. More electricity is lost along the transmission lines.

     The energy "footprint" of Michigan is huge beyond comprehension. Obviously, the new "green" technologies, using current methods, will not come close to replacing fossil fuels. We need to continue working on all existing and potential non-fossil fuel energy sources.

     The single biggest factor, and by far the most important, will be increased efficiencies and conservation. Some experts suggest that we could reduce our consumption by 30-50 percent through fairly easy measures. We might have refrigerators that use less energy, but if we use larger refrigerators or have two of them, then the net result is increased consumption. Too often, energy discussions fail to emphasize the role of efficiency and conservation. Attitudes are difficult to change. We continue to drive large, inefficient vehicles, build oversized homes, and use electricity like there is no end.

     Yet, there is an end. Maybe not in the lifetime of the baby-boomers, but their children and grandchildren will likely have to deal with conservation and alternative energy by necessity, rather than by choice.

     One of Michigan's logical opportunities for part of the solution is to use our abundant forests. Woody biomass can be used in a variety of ways to produce a variety of products. Energy is one more reason to manage and harvest our forests. Woody biomass is far from a silver bullet, but it's renewable, abundant, and we already know how to properly manage forests. Yet, as we improve forest utilization, we always need to keep in mind the humongous energy footprint our state currently has.

     We can debate the role of woody biomass as a large footnote in the greater energy story. It's one thing to have energy accumulating out there in the forest, which runs around 189 trillion btus per year or about 6 percent of current Michigan consumption. However, capturing that free energy for useful human purposes has a series of challenges, including landowner cooperation. The biomass must be harvested, processed, and the energy products distributed. Each of these three areas of technology has many sub-headings. Each has energy inputs. And then, there are the laws of physics.

     With all that we hear about energy these days, it's no wonder that the rain of numbers, terms, conversion, and opinions are across the board. The numbers in this article have assumptions, limits, and caveats, too. Energy situations are not easy to describe and compare. Yet, we must continue to work at it.

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Bill Cook is an MSU Extension forester providing educational programming for the entire Upper Peninsula. His office is located at the MSU Upper Peninsula Tree Improvement Center near Escanaba. The Center is the headquarters for three MSU Forestry properties in the U.P., with a combined area of about 8,000 acres. He can be reached at cookwi@msu.edu or 906-786-1575.

Prepared by Bill Cook, Forester/Biologist, Michigan State University Extension, 6005 J Road, Escanaba, MI  49829
906-786-1575 (voice),  906-786-9370 (fax),  e-mail:  cookwi@msu.edu

Use / reprinting of these articles is encouraged. Please notify Bill Cook.
By-line should read "Bill Cook, MSU Extension" Please use the article trailer whenever possible.

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