How important is it for the United States to find a viable, sustainable energy source to free our country of dependence on foreign oil? Scientist, author and outspoken proponent of alternative energy development Robert Zubrin puts the numbers on the table.

“In 2008, Americans paid $1 trillion for oil — more than $600 billion on foreign oil and just under $400 billion on domestic oil. That’s $13,000 for a family of four. By comparison, we spent $80 billion on oil in 1999,” Zubrin says.

Zubrin further explains the $3,500 or so each of us pays per year for oil isn’t just gas for our cars and trucks. Oil is used in the making of virtually every product sold in the United States. And, he says, our dependence is getting stronger, not diminishing.

In essence, what is at stake is our way of life. So far, American farmers represent the only large industry that has a workable plan for offsetting at least a portion of our country’s oil addiction.

The real answer, Zubrin points out, is multiple sources of energy — all of which convert energy from the sun much more efficiently than producing oil or coal.

In the Southeast the most viable crop in terms of long-term, sustainable growth is pine trees. The Southeast can contribute to ethanol via corn and barley and to biodiesel via a number of oil-containing crops, but the region can be the energy center of America, if scientists can figure out how to economically convert pine trees to energy.

Steve Taylor, professor and head of the Auburn University Department of Biosystems Engineering and director of the Bioenergy and Bioproducts Center, says the technology is already available and the source of feedstock is plentiful. Taylor says there is enough forest residue — not pine trees — in the Southeast to produce enough fuel to alleviate our dependence on oil.

Bringing the divergent industries that are working on alternative fuels together with the U.S. forest industry is a challenge that has been met by other countries.

Brazil has been well publicized as a leader in ethanol production from sugar cane. However, in the world community, European countries have taken the lead in producing energy from available and sustainable bio sources.

Sweden is recognized as one of the leaders in biofuel production. Newly published energy statistics for 2009 show that bioenergy today makes up a larger share of Sweden's energy use than oil: 31.7 percent bioenergy compared to 30.8 oil.

Biomass is used for heat and electricity, for biofuels for transport, and as an energy source in industry. Almost all Swedish cities and towns have district heating using biomass as fuel.

In neighboring Denmark, bioenergy has created a whole new social and political movement that is geared to making the northern European country totally free of oil-based energy. The Danish government has mandated the country be fossil free by 2050.

Denmark is the world leader in energy generation from wind. However, like Sweden, the primary source of energy comes from biomass and the primary biomass comes from forest residue.

Though the movement toward bioenergy from pine trees hasn’t attracted the national attention of the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, progress is being made on converting residue from the huge forest industry in the Southeast to alternative energy.

HCL CleanTech, a U.S.-Israeli biofuels technology development center, recently contracted with the Southern Research Institute to build its first U.S. pilot plant to produce low cost fermentable sugars from North Carolina pine trees.

“HCL CleanTech will invest millions of dollars to move the company to North Carolina and build the pilot plant,” said Eran Baniel, president and CEO. “We evaluated other sites across the U.S., but chose Durham because of the facilities and expertise here at the Southern Research Institute, and the warm welcome we encounter from everyone here.”

While growing pine trees simply as lignocellulosic feedstocks would be a questionable enterprise, those parts of trees left after lumber and pulp have been extracted (e.g., needles, small branches, bark, wood chips, sawdust, and pulping liquors) would seem an ideal feedstock. Not only are such residues abundant, but they have traditionally been used as a fuel (via combustion) to generate electricity/steam.

With relatively modest adaptations, tree waste could be utilized in lignocellulosic ethanol production. Using pine and other forest tree waste rather than human or animal foods (most notably corn) as feedstocks helps keep food prices low and hopefully helps curb conversion of productive forestlands into resource-intensive agricultural lands.          

Last year Colorado-based Range Fuels Inc. began construction on what is expected to be the first commercial scale cellulosic ethanol plant producing fuel from pine tree residue. Set to produce 20 million gallons annually, the plant located about halfway between Macon and Savannah, Ga., will put the Southeast on the map in cellulosic energy production.

Mitch Mandich, CEO of Range Fuels, says fuel from their Georgia plant will begin showing up almost immediately at gas stations in the state. "We have an off-take agreement already in place with a major distributor who will transport the fuel from the plant, either by rail or truck, to blenders in Macon and Savannah," Mandich says.        

“Unlike corn ethanol, which uses a food crop to produce fuel, Range Fuel's feedstock is wood waste from pine trees. Not only does it eliminate the "food versus fuel" debate, it doesn't compete with the state's well-established pulp and paper market,” Mandich adds.

While the Southeast has the most adaptable climate and water supply to produce biomass, including pine forests, other regions of the country have been active in developing forest-based bioenergy solutions.

In Colorado, Cobalt Technologies, a biofuels development company, is using lodgepole and ponderosa pines killed by mountain pine beetles for feedstock for producing cellulosic biofuels in the form of biobutanol.

“If we use half the 2.3 million acres of pine trees killed by beetles, we could produce more than two billion gallons of biobutanol — enough to blend all the gasoline used in Colorado for the next six years,” says Cobalt Industries CEO Rick Wilson.

Many, if not most, farmers in the Southeast own land, at least some of which is in pines or other native trees. Farmers are already involved in alternative fuel via membership in state and national corn and soybean associations.

Getting involved as tree farmers and land owners isn’t much of a stretch. Clearly, agriculture will play at least an indirect role in the development of the forest industry as a major player in alternative fuel production in the future.

e-mail: rroberson@farmpress.com