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Wood-based Biofuels
Article #144, May 2009
By Bill Cook

     Can our forests serve as a source of raw material in the production of biofuels?

     The immediate answer is "yes". The U.P. and other northern forests can easily accommodate a biofuels component to the forest products industry. But a more comprehensive answer involves a more complex quest.

     I say "quest" because the solution is not a simple answer, although it may be a simple question. The notion that such an industry would raze the U.P. forest from one end to the other is a sensationalistic fantasy. While the amount of woody biomass does have biological limits, the major barriers to supply are not likely to be found in the biological/ecological realm but, rather, in the socio-cultural/economic/policy realm.

     So, the more important question might be "are we willing to support a biofuels industry?" Or, "is renewable energy a priority for us?"

     Essentially, both the U.P. and Michigan are "swimming" in a flood of annual growth. This is growth that gets added to our standing forest inventory each year. This has been ongoing for decades. However, just because the volumes are accumulating at a high rate (among the largest annual accumulations in the nation) does not mean the volume will be available for sale (e.g. reluctant owners, physical reasons) or can be harvested and delivered to a mill gate with a reasonable profit margin for loggers (who manufacture the wood products-logs, pulpwood, chips, etc.).

     This "forest to mill gate" process is termed a feedstock supply chain (not to be confused with "chain-of-custody" certification of wood products). We, in the Lake States, do not understand our woody feedstock supply chain very well. A major research program has been proposed to explore this process so that we can better answer feedstock supply questions from wood-using industries looking at our state. Portions of this proposal have been in the news a few times recently.

     Consider also that "biofuel" is but one component of a wood-based energy economy; and wood is but one component of a more renewable-based energy economy. I define "biofuel" as transportation fuels from biological feedstocks, such as wood. These fuels include ethanol, DME, diesel, and other compounds.

     The greater "bioeconomy" also includes wood for heat and electricity, as well as chemical products from processes similar to those employed through biofuel production (these chemicals are much more valuable than ethanol).

     The three major categories of energy consumption are transportation fuels, space heating, and electricity generation. Sometimes, this important context is forgotten during deliberations about renewable energy. Of the three fossil fuels that provide about 87% of Michigan's energy, petroleum is the one in shortest supply and has, perhaps, received the most attention in the media.

     Cellulosic ethanol production is a response to this petroleum situation, as is ethanol made from corn, sugar cane, wheat, etc. Ethanol produced from fruits versus cellulosic sources involves two very different sets of processes and remarkably different energy and carbon budgets.

     Cellulosic ethanol production has not yet been commercialized anywhere in the world. But a big race is ongoing. Mascoma and Frontier Renewable Resources are partner companies in the race.

     Cellulosic ethanol has been produced in the labs, as pilot projects, and then in demonstration production facilities. The next level of engineering is commercial production. While it is relatively easy to produce ethanol to run your truck (the technology is a century old), it is much more difficult to produce ethanol at an economy of scale to run millions of trucks.

     Less often a part of renewable energy discussions is the use of wood for heating and, secondarily, for electricity generation. In the heat & electricity areas, well-established and reliable technology already exists. District energy (DE) and combined heat & power (CHP) are common throughout northern Europe.

     The growth of both DE and CHP in North America is growing rapidly. The U.P. has a very rich potential to use these technologies, along with local feedstocks (wood), to provide an important part of our energy production. This is not the same technology as the dirty, smelly backyard wood burners so commonly found across the U.P.

     As we move into the next decade or two, renewable energy choices will be made. Our energy "complexion" will look much different 25 years from now than it does today. Hopefully, those differences will be the outcome of well-considered strategies that we develop today.

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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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