Graham Sustainability Institute

Planting a New Seed: Woods, Grasses Seen as Renewable Fuel Source

Monday, April 27, 2009

In Northern Michigan’s forests and croplands, some believe there’s potential to reap fuel for vehicles and power plants in a renewable way.

By 2012, a plant producing cellulosic ethanol from forest resources is expected to be operating in the eastern Upper Peninsula community of Kinross.

And in the northeastern Lower Peninsula, Wolverine Power Supply Cooperative has been cooperating with Michigan State University and Michigan Technological University researchers in exploring whether forest products and energy crops could supplement coal in generating electricity at a proposed Rogers City plant.

Michigan Tech researchers note that on average, harvests from northern Lower Peninsula forests represent a small share of their current growth, and that significantly larger harvests could be achieved in a sustainable way.


“We grow literally twice as much wood as we use,” said Robert Froese, an assistant professor in Michigan Tech’s School of Forest Resources.

New motor fuel

Frontier Renewable Resources, a venture in which Massachusetts-based Mascoma Corp. is cooperating with J.M. Longyear of Marquette, in pursuing the ethanol plant in Kinross, located about 35 miles northeast of St. Ignace. The state and federal governments will contribute nearly $50 million of the approximately $250 million in expected development costs, with Michigan’s contribution totaling about $23 million.

“This investment is to bridge that gap so we can implement this technology in a commercial scale so we can create jobs and grow our economy,” said Donna LaCourt, a sector development manager with the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

Mascoma expects the plant will produce up to 40 million gallons of ethanol a year and employ a full-time workforce of 50. Based on Michigan economic development officials’ projections, 150-200 construction positions and 500 or more spinoff jobs could be associated with the plant as well.

“The township naturally is happy to have another business in town,” said Kinross Township supervisor Larry Palma. “Those jobs most likely will be (filled by) local people.”

At least one additional business appears to be in the works nearby, based on Frontier’s plans for the plant, Palma added. A private owner is expected to renovate the non-commissioned officers’ quarters at the former Kincheloe Air Force Base for use as a hotel.

Hardwood sourced from within a 150-mile radius of Kinross will serve as the ethanol operation’s feedstock. Steve Hicks, chief executive officer of J.M. Longyear, noted that the portions of trees which typically are targeted for pulpwood and paper uses will be put to use in ethanol production as well.

“It’s a lower-quality part of the tree,” Hicks said, noting that other portions would remain available for products such as veneers and sawlogs.

Along with the underutilized wood resources available nearby, Mascoma chief executive officer Bruce Jamerson said Michigan officials’ response to the ethanol plant proposal factored in the decision to locate it in this state.

“We’ve had outstanding support from the state in general,” he said. “A lot of parties have been just great to work with.”

Jamerson estimates Frontier is one of 15-20 ventures around the country aiming to produce cellulosic ethanol successfully on a commercial scale.

Mascoma recently launched cellulosic ethanol production on a pilot basis at a plant in Rome, N.Y.

“It’s running well,” Jamerson said. “What we learn in Rome, we’ll utilize in the commercial operation in Michigan.”

Once the Kinross plant is up and running, Jamerson said one likely use for the ethanol produced will be “E-10,” a blend that’s 90 percent gasoline and 10 percent ethanol, with the ethanol component helping to reduce the carbon emissions associated with traditional gasoline.

Cellulosic ethanol is sometimes referred to as a “next-generation” or “advanced” biofuel, with some believing it could offer greater environmental benefits than the corn ethanol which has been produced in growing volumes over the past few years.

Don Scavia, who is Graham Family Professor of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Michigan, does not see corn-based ethanol as a good alternative energy source.

“Most estimates now suggest that it actually produces more (carbon dioxide) than the fossil fuels it is intended to replace,” Scavia said. “Plus, the drive to plant more corn has led to even more loss of biodiversity and increased pollution (from fertilizer and herbicides). One also has to be concerned about the demands on water supplies needed in the ethanol plants, and if any irrigated production is to be used.”

Scavia does see some promise in the cellulosic variety.

“It requires less, if any, fertilization, has a range of potential feedstocks, from switchgrass and willow to wood chips and forestry wastes, and some of those feedstocks could actually provide buffer strips between existing corn and soybean fields and adjacent streams,” he said. “I understand it also has better (carbon dioxide) ratios than fossil fuels or corn-based ethanol.”

To make this fuel profitable and marketable, Scavia said two key problems need solutions.

“First, the technology needed to make the conversion (to ethanol) more efficient needs to be improved ,” he said. “I understand some methods are getting close to production scale, but a push is needed. The second area is in the distribution systems. It is easier to move corn around than the other feedstocks. This may mean a more distributed production and delivery system than we have now. Government would be smarter to support (research and development) in these areas, as opposed to subsidizing more corn-based ethanol efforts.”

Bruce Dale, a chemical engineering professor and associate director of the Office of Biobased Technology at Michigan State University, agrees that cellulosic ethanol could have environmental advantages over the corn variety, noting that cellulosic ethanol production and use likely involves a reduction of about 90 percent in greenhouse gases compared to gasoline, while the reduction is about 50 percent for corn ethanol produced in well-designed refineries.

At the same time, Dale believes a recent backlash against corn ethanol is superficial.

“The American public is not really served very well by having one possibility of things to put in our gas tank,” the professor said.

While some pointed to rising ethanol production as a factor in climbing corn prices in recent years, Dale attributes the price increase instead to commodities speculation.

Today, “we have more ethanol than ever, and yet corn prices are down,” he said.

Dale sees environmental runoffs from agricultural production as a real concern that needs to be considered in growing corn for ethanol.

But he questions the argument that increased corn production and the operations involved make that type of ethanol undesirable from a greenhouse-gas standpoint.

The professor said the notion that increased ethanol production will lead others to clear land for planting of corn is hypothetical, and that it’s not reasonable to implicate ethanol production for the potential behavior of an outside party.

Soren Anderson, an assistant professor of economics and agricultural, food and resources economics at MSU, believes corn ethanol’s drawbacks outweigh the benefits — noting that he sees little or negative impact on greenhouse gases along with concerns such as fertilizer runoff.

“Ethanol is already highly subsidized, which means we're already producing ethanol beyond its economic value to private industry (with taxpayers covering the difference,)” he added.

"Still, I don't see corn ethanol going away any time soon,” Anderson said. “The federal renewable fuel standard mandates 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel by 2022, which is a big increase over the 9 billion gallons that we're currently producing. Most of this increase is supposed to come from cellulosic ethanol, although much of the mandated increase for the next several years can — and probably will — come from expanding corn ethanol, given that producing ethanol from other feedstocks is still more costly.”

Lighting it up

Along with their potential for ethanol production, wood and plant materials are seen as potential resources for firing power plants.

And along with wind energy, Wolverine Power Cooperative executive vice president Craig Borr believes forms of biomass like these are among the most viable of renewable resources for making electricity.

Cadillac-based Wolverine is owned by, and supplies wholesale energy to, five electric cooperatives and one for-profit renewable energy company. Great Lakes Energy, which serves parts of Emmet, Charlevoix and other northern and western Michigan counties is among these owners.

Wolverine currently obtains most of its base-load electricity from other utilities, but is proposing its own 600-megawatt plant in Rogers City that Borr said would take care of a “substantial percentage” of the utility’s generating needs. This plant would primarily be fueled with coal. But as part of the permitting process, Wolverine is seeking the ability to use biomass as up to 20 percent of the fuel supply.

“We’re very much committed to further exploration of biomass being a key fuel component at Rogers City,” Borr said.

In considering permits for new coal plants, Gov. Jennifer Granholm recently directed state regulators to give more scrutiny to the need for additional electricity generation and to consider potential alternatives that would offer better pollution protection.

Still, Borr said the Rogers City proposal is well along in the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s air-quality permitting process, and noted that the plant would rein in emissions better than many of the state’s aging coal-fired generators. At the same time, he acknowledged challenges to the permit from the environmental community may emerge and push back the project’s timetable.

If the plant is developed and biomass is included in the fuel mix, Wolverine environmental services director Brian Warner said it likely would involve some combination of grasses, woods and residues.

“Based on our research, the resources in the area are very underutilized,” he added.

Researchers from Michigan Technological University — such as Froese — and MSU have been studying the potential for area forests to supply the power plant, along with prospects for growing trees and grasses as energy crops.

According to a Michigan Technological University report, existing forest biomass — coming from a radius of less than 50 miles from Rogers City — could be used sustainably to provide more than 20 percent of the plant’s fuel resources, but that much of these materials could better be put to use in higher-value applications like sawlogs, veneers and poles.

Even so, the report indicates that if the area’s forests were used to their full potential for creating products like these, enough residues would remain within a 100-mile radius to exceed the plant’s maximum biomass allotment.

The Michigan Technological University researchers also see potential in the many parcels of unused open lands in Northern Michigan — more than 490,000 acres exist within 75 miles of Rogers City, likely abandoned agricultural sites in many cases — to grow energy crops.

In the past year or so, Wolverine cooperated with Froese in planting trial energy crops at several sites near Onaway. At these, he’s observing growth patterns for a variety of species, using different spacing for the plantings and various seedling types.

During a recent visit to one planting site, Froese noted that coal’s price advantage could present one challenge to using biomass for a portion of generating needs.

For example, the Rogers City plant’s location near Lake Huron would allow coal to be delivered in large quantities by ship. Along with pinpointing biomass sources, Wolverine officials said finding a way to move that type of fuel economically is another hurdle to clear.

But Froese said recent questions about energy supplies are accompanied by something that wasn’t as common when these worries last surfaced in the 1970s — a concern about fossil-fuel emissions potentially contributing to climate change.

“I think the policy directives will push us that way (toward renewables) whether we get cost competitive or not,” Froese said. “We’re going to need wind and solar and geothermal and biomass in a big way.”

And with plantings of energy crops possibly providing a method for transferring carbon out of the atmosphere, Froese said a carbon-offset program might help make biomass power more attractive financially. In such a system, enterprises that emit greenhouse gases would purchase credits to offset this, with proceeds helping to fund renewable energy projects that have a favorable impact on emissions.

Pinpointing the impacts

Still, the notion of using forest products for applications like cellulosic ethanol and biomass power generation stirs concerns from some in the environmental community.

While the Sierra Club’s Michigan chapter believes it could be viable to use lands that have functioned in other ways for biomass initiatives, the organization has concerns about harvesting from existing forests for such projects.

“Basically, cutting down trees to throw them in a furnace to create energy is about the lowest-value use we can create for our forests,” said chapter legislative director Gayle Miller, noting that uses such as papermaking and lumber production can deliver greater value.

Miller noted concerns about how biomass harvesting might impact biodiversity, and that her Sierra Club affiliate has similar reservations about creating fuels from forest materials.

 “We’ve been concerned that the state has overemphasized the availability of wood,” Michigan chapter executive director Anne Woiwode added, noting that some of the figures touted factor in all woodlands, whether available for logging or not.

Woiwode added that more analysis seems to be needed about how forests can be used to provide the best value, how biomass uses might affect other industries seeking a share of forest resources and how the potential use of forest waste products in biomass projects would affect soil fertility.

The Michigan Economic Development Corp.’s LaCourt said prospects appear strong for lining up the forest resources used to feed projects like the Kinross ethanol plant. At the same, she said the state is plans research to ensure that it’s done in a way that’s ecologically appropriate and doesn’t work against existing commercial uses of forest materials.

Michigan officials are in the process of finalizing funding for an inventory of forest-based biomass resources and expect to finish it by 2010, LaCourt said.

The state is further along with an inventory of non-forest biomass — which would come from sources such as agriculture, municipal and urban wastes and residues from forest-product manufacturing, she added. Expected to be complete this fall, it will show where different types of biomass are available geographically and in what quantities.