$10 Million for Pine Beetle Wood-to-Fuel Efforts

By Anna Simet | November 27, 2013

At the beginning of my career at Biomass Magazine about five and a half years ago, I wrote about the massive pine beetle outbreak in the Rocky Mountain West and the potential of using the material as a biopower/biofuel feedstock. At the time, wood pellet producer Confluence Energy of Colorado was the first bioenergy company I had heard of making use of the material.

Since then, it’s been widely discussed and a little—not a lot—has happened. I’ve heard a great deal about its potential benefits, which includes, of course, wildfire mitigation, but I’ve also heard the argument that costs of removal and transportation make beetle kill biomass wood uneconomical for energy purposes, and this has hindered any real progress.

It looks like Colorado State University has set out to find answers and solutions, and has been armed with a $10 million USDA grant to do so.

A USDA press release announcing the grant points out the many benefits to using beetle-killed wood for renewable fuel production—it requires cultivation, circumvents food-versus-fuel concerns and likely has a highly favorable carbon balance—but also points out barriers to its widespread use: it is typically located far from urban industrial centers, often in relatively inaccessible areas with challenging topography, which increases harvest and transportation costs. In addition to technical barriers, environmental impacts, social issues and local policy constraints to using beetle-killed wood and other forest residues remain largely unexplored, USDA points out.

The CSU researchers, together with other scientists from universities, government and private industry in the region, have created the Bioenergy Alliance Network of the Rockies to address the above challenges. The project will undertake comprehensive economic, environmental and social/policy assessment, and integrate research results into a web-based, user-friendly decision support system. CSU is collaborating with partners across four states to complete the project, including University of Idaho, University of Montana, Montana State University and the University of Wyoming, U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, National Renewable Energy Lab and Cool Planet Energy Systems.

FYI, the USDA says that over 42 million acres have been affected by the pine and spruce bark beetle since 1996.

I’m looking forward to learning the conclusions of this project. Hopefully they will find some solid indicators as to what the most economically and environmentally favorable ways to address this situation are.




5 Responses

  1. Nestor Vela



    It's amazing that takes researchers of the USDA, four Universities and a whole Alliance to conclude something that is a "No Brainer". If we compare the money already spent in "Pine Beetle" control, the money involved in controlling future wild fires and what it cost to produce electricity, I'm sure it would be feasible to recover this biomass and turn it into energy. We would be controlling the bug, preventing wild fire, creating jobs and generating clean energy. Ten million dollars is a significant amount of money that could of been used already to implement the project. Let's wait another 10 or 15 years and it will be very little left of the already damaged pine woods of the Rockies.

  2. Fred Depenbrock



    I would like to develop a 10 MW, two unit wood-burning power plant in the area around Fairplay, CO. This is in Intermountain REA's service territory. In the recent legislative session the CO Legislature passed a bill requiring coops to increase their Renewable energy content to 20% from 10% by 2020. I'm looking for financing for this project, which I think has a good chance of negotiating a PPA with IREA. Please contact me about how we might work together.

  3. Laura Colban



    Skanden Energy, as well as a few other companies, have boilers that can easily handle beetle wood chips. It is hard to understand why money is being spent on research rather than on subsidizing large wood chip boiler systems. Nearly every European country has provided substantial subsidies and rebates as a means of promoting biomass. In the US, our government subsidizes oil and gas companies but not the wood chip boiler industry, which would help address not only the beetle wood and fire hazard issues, but also fossil fuel issues.

  4. Allen M. Brackley



    Ann, as I read this article my one question concerns the market (or markets) that are available in the and near the area. In general there are a lot of organizations (USFS Included) and people looking at supply. The real answer to all of the questions is the total market in the area and the competitive situation for alternative fuels. Get off the supply side! First, use part of the CSU funds to define "the market" and something may be accomplished.

  5. Nestor Vela



    I agree with Laura about the subsidies in Europe. No wonder why countries such as France, Norway, United Kingdom and Germany, among others, are way ahead of the game when it comes to "waste to energy". Even developing countries such as India and Philippines have accomplished a great deal in regards to pyrolysis and gasification of biomass. Australia is turning biomass into biochar to improve soil conditions and turning marginal land into productive farming. But here in the United States of America, we have specialized in finding imaginary obstacles and creating storms in a glass of water. We are worried about the "market"? How about the worldwide market?


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