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Energy From Wood!
Article #128, February 2008
By Bill Cook

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     Wood has been a source of energy since the first human figured out how to create a spark to a light a fire. Since then, our use of wood for energy has grown increasingly diverse and sophisticated. These days, more and more chatter can be found about energy from wood, including transportation fuels.

     Energy comes in a variety of forms, such as heat, light, and chemical. The energy locked in wood, originally from the sun, can be used by humans in a variety of ways. Capturing that energy and putting more of it to useful purpose is the challenge.

     Emerging technologies seek to better utilize all that is available from wood, leaving as little as possible to waste. Conventional heating and electric generation systems send the majority of the energy up a chimney or smoke stack. However, in many rural areas, wood is a very inexpensive way to heat homes, schools, and businesses.

     Competing technologies are currently on the market. Decisions need to be made. Do you use firewood? Chips? Wood Pellets? Corn cobs? Mill waste? Heat only? Heat and electricity? Storage and handling issues? Feedstock costs and availability?

     Higher-tech boiler systems use the energy for both heat and electric generation, capturing 70 percent or more of the available energy. Large scale examples include the downtown St. Paul biomass plant and the Laurentian Energy Project north of Duluth. Escanaba is considering installation of such a system. Europe has many. Pulp and paper mills have long been creative in efficiently using wood for energy, as well as for paper and other products.

     Heat can be put to use in a variety of ways. It can drive turbines, fill heating elements, and even provide air conditioning. Heat can be transported in steam, water, and other fluids. The Lied Conference Center near Omaha, run by the Arbor Day Foundation, uses wood for heating and cooling. There are various technologies to both generate and use the heat from wood.

     The Forest Products Center in Madison, along with a couple commercial ventures, has been working on small home units that generate both heat and electricity. Not too far down the road, these units may become available at a competitive price.

     Using wood has several advantages over fossil fuels. Displacing fossil fuel use reduces the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and can lessen our dependency on foreign oil. Wood use generates more local jobs and economic activity than using fossil fuels, at least in Michigan. For rural economies, this can be quite beneficial.

     Through chemical and/or biological processes, wood can be used as a source for transportation fuels. Many of processes and puzzle-parts needed to produce these fuels from wood remain in the research and development stage. All said and done, wood may not end up as the magic bullet to displace gasoline, but it may be an important element in reducing our 140 billion gallon/year consumption.

     "Cellulosic" ethanol production, including that from woody feedstocks, has been targeted by venture capitalists and the U.S. Department of Energy. Range Fuels in Georgia will be producing ethanol from wood this year. Dynamotive of Canada produces BioOil, a possible substitute for heating oils. Several "synfuels" and a variety of chemicals can be extracted from wood, such as succinic acid, a chemical with a bright future. Possibilities abound.

     While the conversion processes carry most of the limelight, support technologies also need to be developed. Acquiring and handling wood has to be figured out. How to store or use produced bioenergy has alternatives. Heat dissipates. Ethanol doesn't like water. Electricity has a short life. Water in feedstocks is a problem. Hauling raw wood has distance limitations.

     Of course, emerging technologies are only as good as the amount of wood available for harvest. Michigan has had growing inventories of wood for decades but less than half of what grows each year actually becomes available to the market. Most of our wood grows on lands owned by private individuals, many of whom won't harvest. Using wood more and more for energy may be a grand concept, but we had better not forget that wood comes from the forest and managed forests produce more wood, along with most other forest values. We also need to be cautious about competing with existing wood-using industries; an economic, social, and environmental asset we can't afford to lose.

     Although Michigan holds a huge wood basket, there is not nearly enough wood to replace the current demands for heat, electricity, or transportation fuel of the state. Nevertheless, using what we have in abundance to reduce fossil fuel consumption is a concept most folks will agree with.

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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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