Forestry Sector Pines for Word on Alternative Fuel

Mon April 23, 2007 - National Edition
Giles Lambertson



America’s tantalizing dream is to grow its own fuel rather than to keep importing petroleum at premium prices from politically unstable parts of the world. As the dream moves closer to reality, alternative fuel advocates say a key resource for filling the nation’s renewable energy pipeline is forestland.

This economic prospect bodes well for timber harvesting equipment manufacturers and dealers, for timber landowners and logging companies.

Pushing the dream is a coalition of equipment manufacturing companies, university researchers, state officials and forestry specialists. The coalition has formulated an action plan under the banner of “25x’25” — a shorthand description of its goal to have alternative fuels secure 25 percent of the fuel market by 2025.

It should be noted that not everything in the coalition’s plan has to do with forests, nor even with finding new sources of energy. New energy conservation and efficiency are a part of it. And in the shorter term, row crops are the primary focus of renewable energy efforts. This includes growing corn for ethanol and soybeans for biodiesel, and the construction of fuel production plants in proximate agriculture regions.

But the advocates acknowledge that producing more corn for ethanol plants means tapping into more irrigation water, an increasingly scarce resource. Increasing corn production also means using more nitrogen fertilizer, which requires huge amounts of natural gas to be produced.

“In our initiative to become more energy secure, there always are trade-offs,” said E. Dale Threadgill, head of the biological and agriculture engineering department at the University of Georgia. “We think about all these things in 25x’25.”

Because the short-term focus on row crops has quickly driven up demand for corn, livestock producers have started to wonder about their future livestock feed supply. They fear that too much corn will be diverted to ethanol projects.

“Corn has such great value for animals and humans,” Threadgill said, “that most people would readily admit the potential for ethanol from corn will plateau in the next few years.”

Thus, finding fuel in biomass material is a longer-term goal of the coalition and forests are a chief component in that search, an effort that is being prodded along by the federal government. For example, U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman announced in late February that his department will invest up to $385 million for six biorefinery projects over the next four years. As envisioned, the refineries will produce more than 130 million gal. (492 million L) of cellulosic ethanol per year. They are part of President Bush’s goal of making cellulosic ethanol cost-competitive with gasoline by 2012.

The six refinery projects are scattered across the country and will process a range of feedstock, including wheat straw, switchgrass, vegetable waste and wood residue. A plant in Soperton, Ga., will consume some 1,200 tons (1,090 t) a day of wood residue and wood-based energy crops and annually produce 40 million gal. (150 million L) of ethanol and 9 million gal. (34 million L) of methanol.

Threadgill and others believe that the nation’s long-term renewable energy resource for cellulosic-based fuel is its trees. Forests cover fully a third of the land of America, mostly in an arc running from east Texas through the Gulf states and northward on the Atlantic coast to Virginia, as well as in some Northeast states, across Minnesota and Wisconsin, and in the Northwestern states of Idaho, Washington and Oregon.

Threadgill presides over a University of Georgia department that kept alternative fuel research alive for 30 years as public interest waxed and waned. When Washington policy makers again began to show interest in funding alternative fuel processes, Threadgill’s department was able to ramp up quickly, rehire some retired professors with expertise in the area and become an instrumental part of the 25x’25 initiative.

Manufacturing

Partners

Partners in the national coalition include Blount Inc., the manufacturer of Prentice timber and logging equipment and the supplier of a significant number of logging equipment models sold under the Caterpillar brand. The Prentice knuckleboom log loader has been around for more than 60 years. The company also produces ground-saw slashers and delimbers, feller-bunchers and other harvesting equipment.

“This 25x’25 program is the biggest thing for forestry in North America, certainly for the next 25 years and probably for the last 25 years,” said Dennis Eagan, group president of Blount’s industrial and power equipment division. “Forestry in America is a very mature market, growing now about 2 percent a year, so this is potentially huge for logger customers.”

A common assumption is that biorefineries will come into their own in the next 5 to 10 years. Eagan concurs with that view and sees the next few years being devoted to finding the best way to harvest timber biomass.

Generally speaking, biomass material is not the marketable trees themselves, which retain their value as a construction and manufacturing material. Rather, what is envisioned as a potential fuel source are the limbs, tops, needles, leaves, culled stunted trees, undergrowth and other woody residue of logging and forest management practices.

If this emphasis on forest residue gains traction in the United States, some new equipment or new generations of equipment could develop. A central issue in development of any new equipment is whether the material gathered on the forest bottom is chipped on site or transported off site to a processing mill.

“If you are talking about tops and limbs, there are two ways to address the situation,” Eagan said in a phone interview from his office in the company’s forestry division headquarters in Zebulon, N.C. “One camp says you gather the tops and limbs in one location in the forest, process them through a chipper and transport the chips to a mill. Another camp says you bundle limbs and tops and transport them to a plant where they are chipped.

“We think the chipping needs to get done in the forest,” he said. “Otherwise, you are transporting too much air.”

Either approach can use new models of existing equipment. However, as the residue work grows in volume and diversity, new machines might be designed and built to accomplish the task more efficiently.

“Our job is to get chips to collection plants. We are working with customers in trying to understand the appropriate logging system or residual collection system to generate primarily chips,” Eagan said. “We are working with certain customers to help design proper systems for collection of this residual.”

Another machinery partner in the 25x’25 project is John Deere, which owns a large share of the global timber harvesting equipment market. Deere’s construction and forestry division dates back to the 1950s. Its agricultural division is older yet. Both divisions stand to benefit from emerging interest in renewable energy. Thus, the company declares in its 2006 annual report that “John Deere is lending its full support to the pursuit of the best ideas for expanding renewable fuel sources.”

A piece of Deere machinery already harvesting residue in the forests of Europe is the 1490D slash bundler. The mobile 1490D bundler collects, compresses and bales tree limbs and tops that litter a logging site. According to Deere literature, the machine can create up to 40 bundles per hour, with typical European work sites producing 150 to 200 bundles per hectare.

How any new Deere machinery develops mostly will depend upon how the renewable energy field develops, said Andrew Bonde, product marketing manager for Deere’s construction and forestry division.

“We all know that today there are no commercially viable cellulosic ethanol plants up and operating,” Bonde said. “From a manufacturing perspective, we don’t want to spend research and development money on something that might never come to fruition. Industry will have to wait and see for [biorefinery] technology to become a little more mature so it can truly understand what the needs are and how we can respond as manufacturers.”

One of the still unanswered questions for wood-based fuel energy producers, Bonde said, is how best to process the forest residue. He cited the same chip-or-transport issue cited by Blount’s Eagan, but noted that handling the residue goes beyond its immediate harvesting from the forest floor.

“One of the biggest hurdles the industry faces is storage and transportation,” Bonde said, noting that a large volume of stored chips can ignite spontaneously. “There are some markets where bundling might be the economic solution because you can’t store chips but you can store a bundle and not have the spontaneous combustion problem. In fact, bundled residue actually increases its BTUs the drier it becomes.”

Private Forests Best

The conversion of the cellulosic sugar content of wood to ethanol, by whatever process, occurs on average at the rate of 80 gal. (303 L) of fuel for each bone-dry ton of wood, according to Fred Deneke, an Arizona retiree who worked for 30 years for the U.S. Forest Service. Deneke culminated his career as assistant director of cooperative forestry and now is on the staff of the 25x’25 work group.

Deneke said he believes the energy initiative “is going to have a tremendous impact. Presently, 6 percent of energy comes from renewable sources and 47 percent of that already comes from woody biomass. So it already is pretty significant in terms of the amount of wood that is used for energy.”

Deneke said that once technologies catch up with the burgeoning demand for renewable energy for electricity production and engine fuel, commerce will take over. “I think we’ll see some advances, but how soon, I don’t know. I think we are still about three to five years off from full commercial-scale production of cellulosic ethanol.”

He said, “The feeling of everyone who has worked on this is that it is very doable. The cellulosic side won’t be significant until 2015 or in that neighborhood, but everyone agrees it is doable. And it is necessary if we are going to get off our addiction to foreign oil. We need to get on with it.”

Nearly 60 percent of forestland in this country is privately owned, according to the U.S. Forest Service. In Western states, the federal government holds title to most of the forested land. Deneke said that an emerging cellulosic fuel industry shouldn’t count on getting significant amounts of wood for energy from those public lands.

“There is some hysteria out there about the federal land component of this,” he said, “but because of increasing environmental restrictions and lawsuits, our federal lands haven’t made a significant contribution to the nation’s wood needs over the last two or three decades. Even though there are areas that certainly could benefit from thinning, and doing so would help the local economies and watersheds, I don’t think federal lands will make much of a contribution except for locally based, small-scale energy facilities. If you are talking about a company investing in a large-scale cellulosic facility that would be highly dependent upon federal lands for long-term supplies, I don’t think that is going to happen.”

The retired forestry executive said “the future of wood- based bioenergy production will most likely be dependent upon the nation’s private forest lands and dedicated plantations growing short-rotation woody crops like willow, cottonwood and poplars.”

The South’s Advantage

It follows that a full-fledged wood-waste biorefinery industry is most likely to emerge in the South, where trees are abundant and mostly under private ownership. The Soperton, Ga., refinery is considered just a beginning for the region.

“The South will be the primary beneficiary,” the University of Georgia’s Threadgill said. “In the South, we can grow anything. We have a longer growing season and more rainfall; we can generate more quickly, and we have millions of acres of trees already, some native and some planted.”

The local economic impact of a refinery could be significant, particularly since it is likely to be erected in a rural area where wages are comparatively low. Because there seems to be no preferred tree for fuel residue collection, the mix of softwood and hardwood trees that cover the Gulf region are all potential fodder for refining. Consequently, the region’s economic potential from biomass conversion is large.

Florida has 25 thousand sq. mi. (65,000 sq km) — approximately 16 million acres (6.4 million ha) — of forest land, primarily southern yellow pine, and the timber industry generates billions of dollars in product sales each year. It is no wonder that the state’s Commissioner of Agriculture, Charles Bronson, encouraged the Florida Forestry Association to endorse the 25x’25 energy initiative. Bronson, in fact, is on the national project’s steering committee.

The Florida association’s government relations director, Alan Shelby, said the energy initiative “is a topic of discussion at most of our meetings in one form or another. Not being an expert, I don’t know if it is feasible or not, but if it is, we would like to be a part of it.”

The Florida association represents forestland owners the length of the state, small to big, from owners of 40 acres (16 ha) to plantation corporations with 900,000 acres (364,000 ha).

“There is a lot of biomass waste out there,” Shelby said. “It’s spread all over the place and that’s the biggest challenge. The product is there; it’s more of a logistical problem of getting the residue to the mill.”

Because corn and soybean conversion to fuel is farther along in development and funding, forest interests formed a lobbying group in March to ensure that their voice is heard in Washington. The Woody Biomass Coalition (www.woodybiomass.net) will advocate for sustained funding and otherwise educate policy makers about the alternative fuel potential in forests.

Like so many of today’s economic challenges, this one is global. The Chinese government announced in February that it will plant some 32 million acres (13 million ha) of jatropha trees, to be harvested for processing into biodiesel. Beijing’s motivation is the same as Washington’s: to get away from being totally reliant on fossil fuels.

U.S. equipment manufacturers have some presence in eastern Russia and western China — notably, John Deere — but the Chinese announcement received pretty much the same wait-and-see attitude from U.S. manufacturers.

“They are planting tree plantations,” acknowledged Eagan, Blount’s forestry equipment executive, “but we expect plantations in China initially will be harvested by hand.”

He said the company is more interested in the market of Asian Pacific countries that sell wood products to China.

“The forestry equipment market is very quickly becoming like the construction equipment market, where you have one product that is sold internationally. The international market is a significant and growing part of our business.” CEG