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Forests and Carbon: Minnesota's Biofueled Future with David Pelikan from Conservation Minnesota

A Minnesota forest in fall
A Minnesota forest in fall

KAXE's Tuesday Morning Show strives to take an in-depth look at some natural resource-based issues important to our region. Producer Mark Jacobs and hosts Heidi Holtan and John Latimer hope to discuss not only the problems but also highlight some creative solutions.

The current focus, Forests and Carbon, is an issue receiving a lot of attention in recent years. In the first segment of the series, Todd Ontl chatted with John and Heidi about how forests sequester and store atmospheric carbon. Stephen Handler described potential changes in Minnesota's forests due to a changing climate in the second segment. In January, Eli Sagor from the U of M.N. discussed their information exchange efforts regarding forests and carbon. In February, Meredith Cornett from The Nature Conservancy described their Natural Climate Solutions initiative. Last month, Sawyer Scherer from UPM-Blandin discussed diversity-centered forestry.

This week's guest is David Pelikan from Conservation Minnesota; he joins Heidi, John, and Mark to discuss the potential for renewable energy from our forests.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Heidi: David and Mark, thank you for being with us!

David: Thanks for having me!

Mark: Good morning.

Heidi: Good morning! So, let's begin. As I mentioned, our previous guests have talked about carbon sequestration and storage. Can our forests also contribute to reduced emissions through renewable energy?

David: The short answer is yes. We know there are real, tangible consequences of climate change right here, right now in Minnesota, and we know they're going to get worse. I think that we have a responsibility to our families and our communities to decrease emissions across the board. We can't leave any stone unturned, and that extends to our forests. While wood products will probably never become our primary energy source, we do know that we can use our forests to provide valuable and specialized, renewable energy. This energy comes with important economic opportunities, especially for rural communities.

Wood-based solutions can be divided into two categories: energy production (through heat or electricity) and biofuel production. On the energy side, humans have been using wood products for heat for thousands of years, and we still are today. About 2.3% of total U.S. energy consumption comes from wood and wood waste. In the industrial sector, that number climbs as high as 4.4%. In the residential sector, 3.5 million American households are currently heating their homes with wood products, especially in rural communities. In Europe, they've (somewhat controversially) approved wood-burning energy as a zero-emissions solution to coal-based energy replacement. The largest coal plant in the U.K. now uses mainly wood pellets. That facility alone imports over 5 million tons of wood pellets from the United States.

We think we have a huge opportunity in Minnesota in biofuel production. The transportation sector is Minnesota's largest source of emissions. While the principal solution is converting to electric vehicles, there's still a need for liquid fuels in heavy-duty vehicles, airplanes, and in areas where we don't yet have accessible infrastructure. Using wood waste and residues, we can produce renewable diesel, renewable gasoline, and sustainable aviation fuels that emit a fraction of their fossil fuel counterparts. And, we can produce these fuels right here in Minnesota!

John: This is quite interesting to me. I'm one of those 3.2 million Americans heating with wood. I have a fairly modern 6- to 8-year-old wood stove that's designed to do a good job of burning the wood. But, I'm often concerned about whether or not I'm carbon neutral in that process or if I'm actually creating a problem. What do you think?

David: That's a really good question. When we talk about burning from a wood stove, most people use wood pellets or cordwood as fuel. There are two controversies around using wood products for energy in the U.S. One of the big benefits is the fact that we're sequestering carbon using trees. Still, there are a lot of environmental organizations that are worried. The sequestration from regrowth takes decades, and burning wood from pellets or cordwood has similar emissions to coal or natural gas, according to some researchers. So, over the long run, it's better to burn wood; in the short run (the next four or five decades), however, some people believe it might be just like burning fossil fuels.

John: Yeah, that's not very encouraging!

David: Well, it's good in the long run!

John: I have 40 acres, and I tend to pick and choose. For instance, cutting a maple that's dying or dead, or if the wind blows something down, I'll cut that up and burn it. So, I'm constantly doing that, and there is a lot of regeneration. But I know that a fully mature, healthy tree sequesters a lot more carbon than, say, 15 brand new shoots coming up from a red maple stump.

David: Yeah, absolutely! I think you hit on an excellent point here in that you're using wood waste as fuel and energy. There's a huge opportunity here in Minnesota to utilize wood waste. Within a 75-mile radius of Grand Rapids, over 400,000 tons of wood waste goes through sawmills or other production facilities every year (or are leftovers from the logging processes). That can be used for energy purposes. It's also a great use of sustainable forest management practices. So, I'd say how you're doing it sounds pretty good!

John: You're talking about using wood as a source of biofuels. What's the process of trying to get diesel out of wood? You mentioned sawmills: I'd assume that sawdust is a good place to start.

David: That's a great question. It's probably slightly above my knowledge level, but here's an example: Red Rock Bio Fuels, a new facility being built in Lakeview, Oregon. They will take waste woody biomass and convert it into renewable jet fuel, renewable diesel, and renewable gasoline blendstocks. They've partnered with FedEx and Southwest to supply jet fuel and with Shell to provide sustainable aviation fuel and renewable diesel. They'll take in waste wood for producers in a 125-mile feedstock radius. Then, they'll convert it into 15 million gallons of renewable fuels. They'll ship these fuels by rail to California. There's a process called gasification during the production process that turns it into syngas. Then, it goes through an F.T. process that turns it toward that liquid fuel that will become jet or aviation fuel, renewable diesel, etc. The resulting fuels will have the same energy density equivalent to fossil fuels, with an over 30% reduction in air pollutants. They'll reduce greenhouse gas emissions and have limited engine maintenance needs for those fuels. It's a pretty robust process to make it, but super beneficial.

John: Is it necessary to have live greenwood to do this? Or can you use waste wood or wood lying around on the forest floor? Where is the cutoff for that?

David: That's a good question. I think it depends on the producer. At the University of Minnesota, a professor named David Kittleson is doing a study using a type of wood waste called "black liquor" that originates from a northern Minnesota pulp plant. So, they can use waste from paper facilities. They can use waste from forestry operations. A lot of wood pellets come from the limbs of trees that aren't used for lumber. People will take wood waste from furniture producers and turn it into biomass for pellets or biofuel.

Heidi: David, you mentioned this place in Oregon that's making renewable diesel. Is there a possibility that something similar would come here to Minnesota?

David: There's certainly the potential, and we have the capacity for it. I'll reiterate that within a 75-mile radius of Grand Rapids, there are over 400,000 tons of waste wood produced every year. The amount of waste wood that goes into that Oregon facility is about 166,000 tons. We also have nine paper and pulp facilities in Minnesota, over 300 sawmills and wood products plants, and we harvest around 3 million cords of wood every year. This quantity of industry produces a significant amount of waste wood that can become feedstock for renewable diesel, providing new jobs in biofuel production and new revenue for existing wood-based operations. So, we absolutely have the capacity, but we're at a competitive disadvantage because we don't have adequate biofuel incentives in Minnesota.

I know California is often seen as something of a political boogeyman, but their development of a low-carbon fuel standard is a key driver behind renewable diesel production. They also offer carbon credits for reduced emissions. The biofuel market has oriented itself around supplying fuel to the state. The Red Rocks Biofuels facility in Oregon is a perfect example of a facility built to supply diesel to California. Now, we can't necessarily make it easier to ship fuel from Minnesota to California. Still, we can develop our own carbon fuel standard. If we create a state policy to build fuel markets here in Minnesota, we could attract significant investment in renewable diesel right here in our state.

Mark: David, every once in a while, I hear, "Is forest management carbon neutral?". One of the discussions is that the processing and transportation of the wood burns up a lot of diesel. It seems to me that using biodiesel in the processing and transportation process would really make forest management more carbon neutral.

David: Absolutely. I think that's a huge aspect across our energy sector; that's analogous to hydrogen production as an energy source. Obviously, hydrogen production isn't in the forestry sector, but hydrogen is a clean material if we use other renewables to make it. So, we have to consider the life cycle impacts of the energy that we produce. The good thing is that when we produce biofuels, they get a carbon intensity score in order to be sold in California and other states with a low carbon fuel standard. So, the Argonne National Laboratory has established a carbon intensity scoring model called GREET, which calculates the grams of CO2 equivalent per megajoule over the life cycle of a biofuel. The life cycle includes transportation, transportation, and burning: all the way from well to wheel. The traditional ultralow sulfur diesel has a carbon intensity score of 102 grams of CO2 equivalent per megajoule. In contrast, the carbon intensity of renewable diesel, even including transportation, is just 30 grams per megajoule (that's even if you don't use biodiesels to ship it!).

Heidi: So, what can you tell us as individuals to help promote renewable energy from our forests?

David: The most important thing you can do to promote renewable energy from our forests, or any environmental or economic issue, is to get in touch with your state legislators. We often view politicians as distant or out of touch, but I really do promise you that your legislators are listening. The most efficient form of lobbying is constituent input. Unfortunately, I would bet that the average person doesn't know who their state legislators are. So, if you care about climate change, if you care about driving investments in northern Minnesota, contact your legislator and tell them to support a clean fuel standard. We can attract investment and produce renewable energy from our forests, but our state legislature has to let the world know that Minnesota's open for business. Each of us can help make that happen.

You can also tune into the morning show each month and learn about forests and carbon! That's a good thing to do too.

Heidi: You can easily find who represents you by going to and entering your address. It'll tell you who your representative and senator are and how to contact them. And David is right! They work for us, and it's your opportunity to contact them about things going on in the legislature. They have about three weeks left now, so it's a great time. They're pretty busy, but you gotta get through to them! David, it's easy to tell you're passionate about these issues. Are you hopeful for the future?

David: That's a very good question. I genuinely believe that we can address climate change, and I believe forests are a huge part of this effort. But, we need the political courage to come to the table. I'm not entirely sure we have that courage. For years, I think we've seen a concerted effort to confuse and divide the American public regarding climate change. I'm not sure if we'll ever be able to convince everyone that we need to own up and take responsibility for the future of our environment. At the very least, we need to convince the public that common sense climate solutions are a pathway to economic success, particularly in rural communities. We also need to convince our leaders that these solutions will not come to fruition unless they're willing to make real change.

I like to describe this fight for climate solutions as something akin to teaching a child how to ride a bike. Kids are capable of learning to pedal on their own and stay upright, but they usually need a push to get there. Our economy and our communities are capable of supporting climate solutions and driving innovation. Still, they absolutely need a push to get there. So yes, I think we can get our state, our country, and our world moving on a path toward long-term sustainability, but we need to accelerate, we need to invest, and we need our leaders to have the courage to come to the table and push.

John: David, that's such a good place to finish; I hate to ask this last question! Is there a species or genus of trees that is more desirable for biofuels? Is it a bit like the paper industry, where they want the spruce, aspens, maples, basswood, and birches, and the rest are left behind? Or is there no particularly desirable species or genus to use?

David: It has a lot to do with how fast the trees can regenerate. Remember when we talked about that potential issue with carbon sequestration and the controversy over whether pellet burning is a good practice. Our value judgment will rely on how quickly we can sequester that carbon and offset the emissions from burning wood-based fuels. Because sequestration is the big benefit of wood-burning fuels, faster-growing tree species like pine are celebrated for their ability to regrow and sequester carbon. Good thing we've got a lot of those!

John: We do!

Heidi: Mark, any closing thoughts?

Mark: No, just one quick question. Is there anything going on in the legislature right now related to this?

David: Yeah. Speaking of low carbon fuel standards, there was the future fuels initiative earlier in the year. It would have introduced a clean fuel standard here in Minnesota. There've been a couple of years now of stakeholder input on that. They had a hearing in the house, just an informal hearing, which was not included in the house environment omnibus. So, that'll be punted to future years. The other important program, especially for issues like wood pellet production and wood-based fuels in Minnesota, is the bioincentive program, which will be discussed in the omnibus bills coming up. There's usually bipartisan support for increasing support for the bioincentive program. Hopefully, we'll see that reflected as we go through the conference committee in the coming weeks.

Heidi: That's David Pelikan from Conservation Minnesota and Mark Jacobs, retired land commissioner of Aikin county and our producer for these segments. Thank you both for your time today.

David: Thank you.

Mark: Thank you.

Heidi Holtan is KAXE's Director of Content and Public Affairs where she manages producers and is the local host of Morning Edition from NPR. Heidi is a regional correspondent for WDSE/WRPT's Duluth Public Television’s Almanac North.
As a mail carrier in rural Grand Rapids, Minn., for 35 years, John Latimer put his own stamp on a career that delivered more than letters. Indeed, while driving the hundred-mile round-trip daily route, he passed the time by observing and recording seasonal changes in nature, learning everything he could about the area’s weather, plants and animals, and becoming the go-to guy who could answer customers’ questions about what they were seeing in the environment.
Charlie Mitchell (she/they) joined KAXE in February of 2022. Charlie creates the Season Watch Newsletter, produces the Phenology Talkbacks show, coordinates the Phenology in the Classroom program, and writes nature-related stories for KAXE's website. Essentailly, Charlie is John Latimer's faithful sidekick and makes sure all of KAXE's nature/phenology programs find a second life online and in podcast form.

With a background in ecology and evolutionary biology, Charlie enjoys learning a little bit about everything, whether it's plants, mushrooms, or the star-nosed mole. (Fun fact: Moles store fat in their tails, so they don't outgrow their tunnels every time conditions are good.)