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Frontier Renewable Resources
Article #160, July 2010
By Bill Cook

       A site in Kinross Township, in the eastern Upper Peninsula, has been selected for one of the first commercial-sized cellulosic ethanol plants in the United States.  This particular plant will use very clean hardwood chips as feedstock employing a proprietary biological process that has been proven both in the laboratory and at a demonstration-pilot facility.  Ramping-up the volume to 20 million gallons a year, and then more, will be a black box full of engineering challenges. 

     Many big questions are attached to such a Herculean project, especially when nobody has done it before. 

     These questions might be grouped according to three portions of the proposed operation.  Wood must move from the forest to the mill gate.  Wood at the mill gate will need to be de-barked, chipped, and pre-processed, and then go through a series of biochemical treatments in order to produce ethanol and other products.  Lastly, markets for these products need to be ready.  Of course, this entire sequence must meet requirements from the economic, environmental, and socio-cultural perspectives. 

     Frontier Renewable Resources is the company attempting to bring this project to life.  Frontier is owned by Mascoma Corporation and JM Longyear, companies that carry expertise to the table in ethanol processing and natural resource management. 

     As a business investor, a reasonable wood supply guarantee must be clear.  To a logger, the price paid at the gate must cover the expense of harvest and transportation, with enough margin to make a living.  To a forest owner, stumpage paid by a logger for standing timber must be acceptable and the harvesting job must be done well.  To a forester, the draw on the regional forest inventory must be sustainable. 

     For everyone, the benefit is significant progress down the road to a more sustainable and renewable energy economy.  A gradual set of changes will likely bring much less pain than a series of abrupt energy crises. 

     For most of us in the region, our concern might focus on the wood supply implications and how to get feedstock to the mill gate at a price agreeable to all parties.  This is more complicated than what it might first seem. 

     All of these considerations, and others, are incorporated into what is called the woody feedstock supply chain. 

     Before a significant project, such as the Kinross ethanol facility, can move forward, this woody feedstock supply chain needs to be better understood than what it is today.  Current and new ways of doing business will be explored.  Resource assessments will be conducted.  Wood harvest and hauling capabilities will be assessed.  Current conditions will be evaluated. 

     These questions are important enough that two million dollars have been set aside to do the research and better answer the many woody feedstock supply questions that investors and citizens need to know.  A Michigan Center of Energy Excellence has been created through the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC). 

     A research partnership has been formed with Frontier Renewable Resources, Michigan State University, and Michigan Technological University.   Expertise has been pooled to address some of these questions and identify opportunities to improve the woody feedstock supply chain. 

     The research program has four major components. 

     First, researchers need to design and build a supply chain model that considers all the activities and technologies needed to purchase, harvest, and transport the wood.  While the notion of cutting down a tree and trucking the products to a mill is simple; the maze of practices, companies, forests, capabilities, and other factors vary widely.  The model will provide a tool to evaluate the complex of factors and test alternative ideas. 

     Second, specialists will take a close look at forest inventory, growth, and availability within a 150 mile radius of the mill site.  There is ample annual forest growth to support the substantial needs of the ethanol plant, but assessing how much might become available to the market, and at what price, becomes a critical factor in developing new forest industries in the region.  This research component will also examine the potential role of wood energy plantations. 

     Third, questions will be answered regarding more efficient ways to bring wood to the mill gate.  Perhaps, new harvesting systems may need to be developed, or a different way to acquire feedstock.  This research component will also conduct life cycle analyses, greenhouse gas assessments, and cost analyses for the delivering wood to the mill gate. 

     Fourth, tools and research results become helpful when shared with companies and groups that can benefit from the new information.  New information will need to be provided to many stakeholders, including forest owners, loggers, public agencies, private organizations, and others.  Extension agents and outreach folks will work with groups.  A website will warehouse information and link together related resources. 

     Working towards a more sustainable energy future will take time and a lot of work.  There will be many questions to answer and crystal balls to consult.  However, one fact remains fairly clear.  The way we do business today will not likely stay the same for much longer.  It never has, really. 

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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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