Energy for Iowa, health for the forests
July 10, 2012
From the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture:
Iowa landowners can supply emerging markets with sustainable biofuel while restoring forests to good health, according to new research from the Leopold Center.
John Tyndall, assistant professor in natural resource ecology and management at Iowa State University, led a Leopold Center Ecology Initiative project to study the potential of woody biomass as a biofuel feedstock in Iowa. He worked with assistant professor Julie Blanchong, research associate Tricia Knoot, and Jesse Randall of ISU Forestry Extension.
Crop residues have received the most attention in the Midwest in the discussion about biofuel, but farmers have proved reluctant to remove corn stalks and leaf litter from their fields, due to concerns about erosion and low profitability. Additionally, few acres have been dedicated so far to energy crops like switchgrass and sorghum.
Tyndall’s research suggests that Iowa’s forests can become an important biofuel source. The study estimated that Iowa has 11 to 17 million dry tons of woody biomass in forms too small to harvest as sawlogs. Private landowners own most of these forested areas in small, fragmented parcels.
In a survey of 683 landowners, seven percent were “very likely” to harvest and sell woody biomass if markets developed. Thirty-eight percent indicated interest but wanted more information. Forty-three percent were not likely to participate, and 12 percent said they would not participate. The survey focused on forest-savvy, engaged landowners who belong to the Iowa Woodland Owners Association or the Iowa Tree Farm Association.
Nearly half of those surveyed expressed some interest, and Tyndall feels confident that woody biomass markets will develop. He envisions a system that provides renewable energy to local power plants while giving landowners an incentive to improve forest health. Many of Iowa’s woodlands have suffered from a lack of management. Without the beneficial fires that once cleared out undergrowth, forests have become denser and oak trees have diminished. Invasive species like honeysuckle crowd out the native understory plants.
Careful harvest of woody biomass can address these problems and “do wonders for our forests,” Tyndall said. Landowners can remove small trees, brush and invasive species to open up the understory, fostering diversity and improving wildlife habitat. Healthy forests improve water quality, sequester carbon and provide recreational opportunities like hunting and bird-watching.
“If you do it right, and if it’s done in the context of other management goals, harvesting woody biomass can have win-win outcomes for a lot of people,” Tyndall said.
Urban areas also would benefit from markets for woody biomass. Cities, towns and rural electric cooperatives often own forested land and generate biomass by trimming trees or removing dead wood. “There may be a need on the owner’s side to either get rid of it or find some economic value for it,” Tyndall said.
One concern is that if viable markets develop for woody biomass, landowners might have an incentive to harvest too many trees. But the results of Tyndall’s research suggest otherwise. The survey found that landowners interested in biofuel markets primarily wanted to improve their woodlands, with income being only a secondary consideration.
The researchers recommend that universities and government agencies work together to develop standards for sustainable harvesting and provide landowners with information about how to manage their forests for multiple uses, including biomass production. Several power plants in Iowa already have the capacity to use renewable fuels. The major barriers are developing reliable markets and coordinating the collection of woody biomass from multiple small woodlands to deliver to Iowa power plants.
“We have a grand vision that all of these things are going to happen,” Tyndall said. “The potential is really strong for it.”
Tyndall’s team recently received a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Program to research biomass in the Great Plains states. Tyndall, Knoot and Randall also are co-investigators on the University of Iowa Biomass Partnership Project and another Leopold Center-funded project that looks at woody biomass production as a strategy for dealing with the emerald ash borer.
Project description Assessment of woody biomass (E2009-26)
The University of Iowa Biomass Partnership Project (XP2012-05) – The University of Iowa (UI) plans to develop a large supply of biofuels to replace coal in the campus power plant. The project, which received a planning grant from the Leopold Center Cross-Cutting Initiative in 2012, is part of UI’s goal to reach 40 percent renewable energy by 2020. John Tyndall’s research laid the groundwork for this shift to biofuel, and he points to this project as an important test case for developing biomass markets. The investigators expect to need 100,000 dry tons of woody biomass annually, sourced from within a 75-mile radius of Iowa City.
Emerald Ash Borer research (XP2011-07) - A market for woody biomass could help landowners and urban areas cope with trees killed by the emerald ash borer. An invasive beetle from Asia, the emerald ash borer arrived in the United States in the 1990s and was confirmed in northeast Iowa in 2010. Jesse Randall, ISU Extension, leads a Leopold Center Cross-Cutting project with co-investigators Tricia Knoot and John Tyndall that will develop a strategy for handling the enormous costs of managing the emerald ash borer. Wood infected or killed by the ash borer could supply the emerging biofuels market and provide income to pay the harvesting costs.
A link to the article from the Leopold center is here.