Renewing Forests in Colorado: Opportunities for Bioenergy

When you think of Colorado, images of snow-capped mountains and lush evergreen forests may come to your mind. But Colorado’s forests have been under attack. It began more than two decades ago when severe drought led to an infestation of mountain pine beetles, spruce beetles, and other pests. The beetle infestation, over time, killed millions of acres of lodgepole pine trees and other tree species. There is now an abundance of dead trees standing on the mountainsides of central and western Colorado.

Decomposition of dead trees occurs naturally and is healthy for a forest ecosystem. However, too many dead trees makes the region prone to forest fires that are costly and dangerous to contain. Forest fires can damage property and communities, harm wildlife, and threaten water supplies.

Fortunately, there is an opportunity here to renew Colorado’s forests by removing and converting some of the dead trees into biofuels and bioproducts. Using forest management best practices to collect and remove dead trees helps to improve forest health and mitigate fire risk. And the dead trees—which are not suitable for higher-quality lumber products and have few uses—can still be used to produce biofuel as an alternative to petroleum-derived gasoline.

Wood is one of the many different types of plant and organic resources that can be converted into bio-based transportation fuel for cars, trucks, and airplanes. Other examples are the wastes from agricultural harvests (such as the corn husks and stalks from a corn field), grasses, wet wastes from wastewater treatment plants, and algae. The Energy Department’s (DOE) Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) funds research and development projects that reduce the cost of producing biofuel from non-food biomass resources with the intent of reducing the need for petroleum imports, reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector, and creating economic opportunities for Americans.

Biofuel from these resources is not widely available on the commercial market just yet. That is because it is more costly to produce biofuel from wood than from starchy plant sources such as corn kernels, because cellulose—the more fibrous part of plants that gives them structure—is difficult to break down.

However, recent advances in biofuel technologies are bringing us closer to commercialization of wood-based biofuels. In 2012, in partnership with the national laboratories, BETO brought down the cost of “cellulosic” ethanol (cell walls in wood and other plant materials are packed with cellulosic fibers) to be cost competitive with petroleum. In 2014, American Process Inc. sold its first cellulosic ethanol made from mixed forest residues, and in 2015 with DOE funding, a team of five companies successfully produced biofuel made from wood.

As part of getting this next-generation biofuel industry off the ground, biofuel producers need a steady supply of biomass feedstock. Dead trees, like those in Colorado, can be an important source and can expand resources available to produce biofuel in the U.S. Forestry wastes combined with other biomass such as agricultural residues can add up to more than 1 billion tons of biomass resources in the U.S.

By combining best management practices in forest regions—like Colorado’s—with the development and use of new bioenergy technologies, these woody materials could be effectively used for biofuel while also protecting our nation’s forests.

The article and video were originally published by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy in the public domain.

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Joseph Pomerening is a Science and Technology Policy Fellow through the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Bioenergy Technologies Office.

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