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Using Wood for Energy in the U.P.
Article #142, March 2009
By Bill Cook

     Wood has long been used as an energy source, especially for heating, as evidenced by the proliferation of outdoor wood furnaces and indoor wood stoves. Forest-based industries have been largely fossil fuel free for many years. Yet, only about three percent of Michigan energy consumption comes from biomass.

     Oddly, Michigan has tremendous volumes of wood that grow each year in the forest, more than most states. Tapping into a portion of that annual growth seems a logical place to look for a good portion of our renewable energy expansion. Better managed forests and the gradual introduction of wood energy plantations could provide even greater quantities of renewable energy.
District energy systems use hot water to heat buildings from an underground network of insulated pipelines. The power plants that heat the water can also be designed to chill the water for summer time air conditioning needs. The power plants can be fed with fossil fuels, or with wood. In the U.P. we have lots of wood.

     These district energy systems burn clean, unlike most outdoor home furnaces. They are efficient and need little maintenance. They are the heating system of choice across much of the well-developed renewable energy sector of northern European countries. Larger systems can install engineering to also generate electricity, increasing the overall efficiency of the power plant. However, capturing the heat uses more of the energy in the fuel than generating electricity.

     While Michigan is swimming in a flood of new volume growth each year, diverting a portion of that annual growth to renewable energy production has challenges. It's a long way from the forest to a mill gate. Recognizing the need to better understand the "feedstock supply chain", a research project has been proposed, based at the MSU U.P. Tree Improvement Center near Escanaba. Many partners are included in this project, including MTU, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, and several corporations. Federal funding to support a collaborative center has recently been added to the mix.

     Good management on more forests would produce more wood fiber for renewable energy, as well as a range of other benefits, such as higher quality logs, increased carbon sequestration rates, and a diversity of wildlife habitat. Supporting efforts to improve management on Michigan's private forest ownerships may be a particularly effective way to encourage the growth of Michigan's bioeconomy.

     Michigan has about two million acres of "retired" farm land that is used neither for crops nor for development. Putting some of this land back into production with wood energy plantations may be a strategic method to increase the amount of sustainably grown wood fiber, depending upon the proximity of these lands to wood-based power plants.

     Many U.P. commercial "wood energy" projects are either on-line or in various stages of development. L'Anse-Warden is a new combined heat and power plant, re-built from a closed facility. Renewafuel-Cliffs should begin producing wood briquettes for power generation later this year. Vulcan Pellets has been producing residential pellets for several years. Messersmith manufactures and installs combustion systems across the country, including several schools in the U.P. Paradise Briquettes began producing hot dog bun sized pellets in the 1980s.

     NewPage is looking at using Swedish technology to produce high-value chemicals from by-products of the paper-making process. Mascoma and Frontier Renewable Resources hope to build a 40 million gallon per year wood-based ethanol plant in Chippewa County, the first of its kind in the world. Manistique, Escanaba, Menominee, and Marquette are examples of communities actively exploring options that might better utilize some of Michigan's vast annual growth.

     We are at the beginning of some potentially exciting times by investing in an expanding energy economy. Things are a-happening in the U.P.

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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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