2012-07-05 / Outdoors

From the Forester

Fiber from woody biomass plantations can have several purposes. Wood-based feedstock currently holds the greatest promise of expanding renewable energy in the Great Lakes region.

Wood biomass can be used for various boiler applications, pellet production, cellulosic ethanol, different chemicals and extractions, and a mix of other technologies. Wood has long-been the dominant source of renewable energy, led mostly by forest industry.

Wood energy plantations can grow harvestable volumes of fiber in 4 to 10 years, depending upon the species. Hybrid poplar and hybrid willow are leading candidates. Volumes of3 to 5 dry tons per acre annually can be achieved. This is about eight times the growth of the average Michigan forest and two to three times even the most wellmanaged Michigan forest.

Woody biomass plantations are more like agriculture than forestry. Productive soils are needed and must be cultivated. Herbicides are used to kill competing vegetation and may be required for an additional year or two. Correct spacing is essential to maximize production. Fencing from deer is usually essential. Specialized planting and harvesting technology may be part of the operation.

After coppicing hybrid willow following the first year, harvests occur every three years. The willow regenerates from sprouts with little, if any, preparation. In northern Europe, this cycle has continued for 30 years. Harvesting the dense, small diameter stems presents a technological challenge.

Hybrid poplar is planted at lower densities than hybrid willow and the first harvest can be expected in 6 to 10years. As an option, the rotation might be extended to produce more traditional pulpwood material. Unlike willow, the next poplar stand will likely need to be re-planted. However, this feature may change with the addition of new hybrid features.

Researchers at MSU’s Forest Biomass Innovation Center have developed systems for growing woody biomass quickly in energy plantations. Improvements continue to be made leading to the eventual deployment throughout Michigan. Markets must be available to justify the costs of plantations.

The Center will host a Field Day on the afternoon of 21 August at the facility near Escanaba. As late of speakers will deliver presentations about various aspects of MSU wood energy research and programs. The bulk of the afternoon will tour some of the numerous research trials.

This field day is a good opportunity to see what has been done to date and obtain a better idea of the possibilities associated with growing woody biomass for a range of potential energy applications.

There is no cost for attending the Field Day but please register with Bill Cook if you wish to attend. A head-count will help in planning the event.

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As an MSU Extension forester, I provide educational programming for the entire Upper Peninsula. My office is located at the MSU Forest Biomass Innovation Center near Escanaba. The Center is the headquarters for three MSU Forestry properties in the U.P., with a combined area of about 8,000 acres.

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