Researchers test alternative energy

The U is exploring forest-based biomass as an energy source.

by Raghav Mehta

As policymakers and environmentalists search for new sources of renewable energy, researchers at the University of Minnesota are working on turning leaves and branches into energy. University researchers are currently exploring the viability of using forest-based biomass as an alternative energy source. Last month they received a $2.7 million federal grant to expand the footprint of their research to cover 50 million acres of forestland in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. Forest resources professor Anthony DâÄôAmato will lead the study in collaboration with scientists and researchers from the U.S. Forest Service and the University of Wisconsin. Researchers will gather branches, leaves and shrubs to analyze the economic and ecological costs and benefits of harvesting the woody biomass over the next four years. DâÄôAmato said forest-based biomass gives another option in the search for a more environmentally friendly source of energy. âÄúOur project is looking at understanding environmental impacts,âÄù he said. âÄúWeâÄôre all optimistic that this could be another renewable resource, but we donâÄôt want to build all this infrastructure around a fuel source that we find out in the long run is not necessarily sustainable.âÄù Using forest-based biomass can revitalize rural forest areas that arenâÄôt being used for the pulp or paper industries anymore, DâÄôAmato said. Using biomass as fuel could also help create jobs, because new biomass facilities will have to be built and transportation infrastructure will have to be improved in order to transport the raw forest materials, forest resources professor Alan Ek said. While economic and ecological benefits are touted, issues of sustainability and effects on the environment are also being taken into consideration. âÄúThere might be some negative impacts on the lands,âÄù DâÄôAmato admitted. Matt Norton, forest advocate and staff attorney for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, said machines needed to harvest the forest material would harm the natural habitats of forest animals. âÄúWhatâÄôs lacking is evidence on how weâÄôre going to do this without damaging the environment,âÄù he said. Norton also expressed concerns that the amount of energy derived from forest-based biomass wouldnâÄôt be enough to justify damaging the forests. âÄúWe could really do a lot of damage âĦ and it still would only get us 3, 4 percent. I doubt 5 percent,âÄù he said. Even after gathering all the forest resources in the state of Minnesota, woody biomass would account for less than 5 percent of our energy, said Dave Zuemta, executive director of the Minnesota Forest Resources Council. Norton said grassland is a far more sustainable source of renewable energy and that industries are looking to use public forest lands for biomass because âÄúthey want a cheap resource.âÄù While the percentage doesnâÄôt seem significant, Zumeta and DâÄôAmato said there are certain parts of the Midwest region where there arenâÄôt a lot of opportunities for other renewable resources. âÄúI donâÄôt want to minimize the importance of [biomass], but when you get into northeastern Minnesota âĦ itâÄôs pretty important, because thereâÄôs a lot of forest up there,âÄù he said.