It’s long been said that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, but when it comes to biofuels everything may be treasure.
Researchers from the LSU AgCenter and Mississippi State University are studying how small and medium forest landowners and agriculture producers can cash in on the growing demand for biofuels. One area the study considers is the potential economic impact of power plants fueled by woody biomass, such as leaves and branches left behind when trees are cut down, and even chicken droppings.
“There are different companies that are just looking at burning what’s left in the forest, dirt and everything, for electricity production,” said Richard Vlosky, director of the Louisiana Forest Products Development Center at the LSU AgCenter.
There are all sorts of neat technologies bubbling up to make alternative fuels, using plants, wood pellets, biodiesel and charcoal-type products, to name just a few, Vlosky said.
Biomass facilities are being developed throughout the country, and government policies, including tax breaks and mandates, are encouraging the use of renewable fuels. Congress wants U.S. farms, forests and ranches to provide 25 percent of the total energy consumed nationwide by 2025.
Biomass now provides about 7 percent of the country’s total energy consumption, with wood close to one-third of the renewable energy consumed, according to the study. Both numbers are expected to grow.
A 2008 study by Forest2Market predicted that U.S. demand for wood fiber from emerging biomass markets is expected to grow from 2008’s 2 million tons to at least 13.5 million tons in 2020.
And if the United States institutes a cap-and-trade system for mitigating carbon dioxide, the demand for biomass as an energy feedstock could escalate further, according to Vlosky.
That demand could create opportunity for small and medium forest landowners, those who own between 10 and 139 acres and 140 to 999 acres. Louisiana has thousands upon thousands of these landowners.
Vlosky and his fellow researchers received a $409,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to examine three industry sectors and three regions to determine their potential for providing biofuel feedstock. The industries and areas are small- and medium-sized landowners, or people who own up to 1,000 acres, in southwest Louisiana; agriculture producers in the Delta region of Mississippi and Louisiana; and poultry producers in Mississippi.
The chickens in these huge chicken-raising facilities produce enormous amounts of “organic matter,” which at least one U.S. power plant is already burning to generate electricity, Vlosky said.
LSU economist Dek Terrell found that if a power plant fueled by woody biomass were built in southwest Louisiana, the facility would create around 140 construction jobs, close to $7 million in new earnings and more than $20 million in sales.
Once the plant was up and running, it would employ 24 people while generating more than 300 new jobs in the region and more than $70 million in sales a year. The results for the Delta area would be roughly the same.
Cleco is testing woody biomass as a potential fuel at its power plant near Boyce, north of Alexandria, because the facility is in a timber-rich area.
Buck Vandersteen, executive director of the Louisiana Forestry Association, said the study headed by the AgCenter could help position Louisiana as a leader in the emerging biofuels/biomass industry.
Like the rest of the South, Louisiana’s lengthy growing season and infrastructure make the state attractive as a producer of renewable fuels, he said. Louisiana is in a good spot to take advantage of new technologies and new uses of wood that are coming down the pipeline.
“People say the (forestry) industry is dying, coming to an end,” Vandersteen said. “Nothing could be further from the truth. We can take wood and turn it into jet fuel.”
That’s amazing, Vandersteen said. About the only thing the industry hasn’t done with wood is turn it into food, and that day may not be far off.
The next step is to make these alternative fuels commercially viable, without government support, Vandersteen said. A couple of years ago, researchers said that was just a year or two away, but that time has passed, and the technology remains a year or two away.
Vandersteen said the breakthrough, when it happens, will appear to take place overnight.
“One morning we may wake up and watch on MSNBC or CNN or Fox News that some researcher has just discovered an economic way of making this happen,” he said.
But all of that begins with the person who goes out in the winter, in the rain and cold, and plants a tree, Vandersteen said. The act represents a long-term commitment.
The Louisiana and Mississippi researchers surveyed 3,500 small and medium forest landowners. The survey was designed, among other things, to gauge landowners’ willingness to shift their existing production to higher-value bio-based alternatives and to use nonproductive acreage to grow bio-based products.
The survey found that more than 63 percent of the landowners who responded to the survey believe wood biomass should be used for energy production. But only about half are willing to supply the biomass feedstock or participate in bio-based activities. And those surveyed were even less optimistic that a bioenergy market would be competitive with conventional energy; 43 percent either somewhat or strongly agreed with that premise.
Vlosky said the researchers will hold a series of eight workshops in Louisiana and Mississippi to help educate the forest landowners about the opportunities available in bio-based products.
The entire schedule has not been set, but the first workshop is set for Sept. 19 in Mississippi, Vlosky said. The remainder are planned for October and November.