$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.