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Should We Pursue Biofuels From Beetle-killed Wood?


[This is the second half of a story about the pine beetle epidemic in Colorado and what is being done to mitigate its damage. Part one can be found by following this link to sustainablog.]

Residents of Colorado are witnessing a rapid destabilization of the forest around them, and they can do very little to stop it. The spread of the mountain pine beetle epidemic is now considered of ‘catastrophic’ proportion. Most foresters agree that the beetle will essentially run its course by eliminating its favorite food – the lodgepole pine. The most one can hope for is to mitigate fire risk by pursuing aggressive thinning programs. However, thinning forests does not come cheap: it is labor intensive, resource intensive, geo-politically awkward, and the end product is not held in very high regard by the market. But the economic viability of large-scale thinning projects is changing, and it is doing so almost as quickly as the trees themselves are changing from green to red.

This week, several stories hit the newswire that, taken collectively, hint at the growing conditions for a perfect storm for cellulosic ethanol. The ‘virgin’ biofuel industry got a kick in the seat yesterday when a study published in Science confirmed many environmentalists belief that ethanol from corn and switchgrass could actually worsen climate change. The studies paid significantly more attention to the environmental impacts of land-use change, transportation, and fuel-refining (for details on the paper, listen to this very good Science podcast). The take home point? As we pump billions of dollars into agri-fuels we are doing more harm in the short run; a time period where we need to be doing the most good.

Policymakers need to open their eyes and ears to the dangers of investing so heavily in crops for fuel that used to be for food. Thankfully, innovative companies are way ahead of policymakers in the area of clean fuels. CleanTechnica reported yesterday on the unveiling of Coskata’s new biofuel refining technology that turns waste into biofuel, and how the economic climate is shifting towards ethanol.

The cheapest, most logical, and most environmentally friendly way to make ethanol is to do so with waste, not by growing lots of corn. And thanks to the pine beetle epidemic, there is a wealth of small-diameter waste-wood in the Rocky Mountain West looking for a home.

beetle-range-final-crop.jpgTaking a lesson from our neighbors to the North, the Department of Energy announced Tuesday that it would pay $30 million towards the construction of Colorado’s first cellulosic ethanol plant. The plant will use a technology that will convert beetle kill into ethanol. A technology that has been developed and tested in British Columbia, which has its own problems with pine beetles.

In addition to ethanol fuel, the Colorado plant will produce lignin as a byproduct, which is a useful ingredient in lubricants and other goods. This, combined with the sellable fuel, will pump money into the system to help pay for the forest-thinning programs that help control the beetle problem.

Not Just Liquid Fuels

Community Energy Systems LLC (CES) specializes in small scale biomass energy projects in the Western US. The company’s business models create layers of opportunity for local ownership, investment and management of biomass projects. CES’ newest project is the first of many with a rural electric association in northern Colorado. The project was the benefactor of a USDA Woody Biomass Grant for the design and development of a combined heat/power plant on a site adjacent to a sawmill in Walden, CO. With 11 of Colorado’s 22 REA’s located in areas hard hit by the recent pine bark beetle epidemics, the development of biomass projects has enormous implications for the health of the forests and rural communities.

Is all of this too good to be true? Some would argue yes. Not everyone agrees that the ecological impacts of large-thinning of forests is not the answer, and some groups will argue that we should do nothing. For most of those who live in an amongst the pinebeetle scourge, doing nothing is a very scary option, if an option at all. In part III I will address these and other political implications of Colorado’s pine beetle epidemic.


International Herald Tribune

USDA 2008 Woody Biomass Grants

The Denver Post

Rocky Mountain News


(Photo)Canadian Forest Service

(Map)Colorado Cooperative Extension

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Written By

is the founder of ecopolitology and the executive editor at LiveOAK Media, a media network about the politics of energy and the environment, green business, cleantech, and green living. When not reading, writing, thinking or talking about environmental politics with anyone who will listen, Tim spends his time skiing in Colorado's high country, hiking with his dog, and getting dirty in his vegetable garden.


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