Alliance Receives $10 Million To Research The Viability Of Using Beetles-Killed Trees As Biofuel
November 23, 2013
Kyriaki (Sandy) Venetis in USDA, beetle-killed trees, biofuels, deforestation, drop-in biofuels, drought, global warming, logging, mini transportable biofuel refineries, pollution, renewable energy

The Bioenergy Alliance Network of the Rockies (BANR)– a consortium of academic, industry, and government organizations led by Colorado State University – has been awarded $10 million by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to research the viability of using beetle-killed trees in the Rockies as a sustainable source for creating biofuels.

Beetle damage in West Elk Mountains, Colorado. Photo by Jimmy Gekas.

Among the benefits of this plan would be the culling infested forests. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said earlier this month that, “Infestation of pine and spruce bark beetles have impacted over 42 million acres of U.S. forests since 1996, and a changing climate threatens to expand the threat from the bark beetle on our forest lands .”

This isn’t a new concern, and warming winters over the last several seasons have greatly exacerbated the growth of beetle populations and forest destruction.

In 2009, Matt Skoglund, director of the Natural Resource Defense Council’s (NRDC) Northern Rockies office , talked about “the tragic demise of whitebark pine trees in the Northern Rockies, primarily caused by the mountain pine beetles,” which he added were “thriving with a warmer climate.”

Skoglund continued that “the destructive paths of both the spruce  beetle in the boreal forests of Canada  and the mountain pine beetle in the Rockies, both of which, thanks to warming temperatures [were] wreaking havoc on coniferous forests and leaving millions of acres of dead trees in their wake.”

Skoglund also added that the worst case scenario was already unfolding, saying that warmer temperatures were “enabling beetles to survive at ever higher elevations” and that as a result, the whitebark pines without natural defenses, were “being slaughtered by beetles across the Northern Rockies.”

Colorado State University explained the role of extreme cold in controlling beetle populations, saying, “For winter mortality to be a significant factor, a severe freeze is necessary while the insect is in its most vulnerable stage, i.e., in the fall before the larvae have metabolized glycerols, or in late spring when the insect is molting into the pupal stage.

“For freezing temperatures to affect a large number of larvae during the middle of winter, temperatures of at least 30 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit) must be sustained for at least five days.”

Besides climate change, Colorado State also says, “The primary reason for this increase [in bark beetles] is the combination of large areas with susceptible stand conditions (mature trees in dense stands) and trees stressed by drought.

Colorado State has stressed that, “Preventing attack is key because you cannot do anything to save a tree once it has been successfully attacked,” and has suggested to federal and state land managers that, “The most effective way of dealing with bark beetle outbreaks over large, forested areas is through preventative vegetation management practices.”

Colorado State suggests that, “Examples of management activities that can reduce forest susceptibility to insect damage include:

These suggestions are a major reason why the USDA is supporting research into the viability of using trees killed by bark beetles are a resource for biofuels. If such a plan is viable, it will both contribute to greatly reducing beetle populations and generating a new renewable fuel source.

The USDA says that among the other potential benefits to using beetle-killed trees for biofuel production is that, “It requires no cultivation, circumventing food-versus-fuel concerns, and likely has a favorable carbon balance.”

The USDA is also aware of the challenges, citing that the wood is typically located far from urban industrial centers, and often in relatively inaccessible areas with challenging topography, which increases harvest and transportation costs.

To address the feasibility of harvesting beetle-killed wood to make biofuels and refineries being able to make a sustainable profit, BANR has partner Cool Planet Energy Systems – a developer of small scale bio-refineries – to explore the scalability of thermochemical conversion technologies (basically small portable biorefineries) that can be deployed in close proximity to beetle-killed tree stands.

The USDA added that localized production could lead to “significantly lower costs related to wood harvest and transportation,” and that such an approach could be a key element in making insect-damaged trees a plausible energy feedstock.

Keith Paustian, BANR project director at Colorado State, said that the project will begin work by the end of 2013, with assessing beetle-killed feedstock availability, as well as how to harvest and process the material in an environmentally friendly and economically sustainable manner.

Cool Planet added that in addition to making high octane, drop-in gasoline, the project will also study how biochar they produce can be used to create “more productive forest and agricultural crop growth by returning nutrients and helping retain water in the soil.”

There are those, though, that are taking a cautionary approach to the project. Nathanael Greene, director of renewable energy policy at NRDC told NBC News earlier this month that, “The prominent issue that pops right up from the beginning is the question of long-term viability.  That’s because even though the beetle-kill is widespread, it affects a limited number of trees. Once they are harvested, the supply is gone.”

NBC News further reported that, “The concern is that the refineries that convert the biomass to biofuel are typically massive, have 30-to-50-year lifetimes, and thus need a steady supply of feedstock to remain economically viable.”

NBC though expressed optimism about the potential benefits of mini-refiners like Cool Planet, saying, “The company’s modular system can be tailored to the feedstock available, and set up close to the beetle-killed trees. When all the trees are harvested, they can pick up the system and move to the next infested forest.”

Another issue of concern is global warming, with Greene noting that, “More often than not, these types of projects wind up adding carbon to the atmosphere, and thus exacerbating global climate change. So you really have to be sure that you are providing a real forest health and biodiversity benefit to justify that.”

The USDA said that so far, technical barriers, environmental impacts, social issues, and local policy constraints remain largely unexplored, but the project will undertake a comprehensive assessment of these issues and “integrate research results into a web-based, user-friendly decision support system.”

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