Conference to highlight forest bioenergy opportunities

By Rona Johnson | April 21, 2011

The 31st Southern Forest Tree Improvement Conference promises to have something for everyone interested in developing, growing and utilizing biomass for the production of bioenergy.

The event, which is being held June 13-16 at the Imperial Palace Resort and Spa in Biloxi, Miss., is mostly dedicated to tree genetics, but the session on June 14 called Biomass and Biofuels Production is designed to educate the general public about the role of renewable biomass in producing biofuels and bioenergy. Speakers during this portion of the conference include, Mississippi  Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, John Gacskaylo of KiOR Inc., Tim Eggeman of ZeaChem Inc. and Mike Cunningham of ArborGen.

The conference theme is Unlocking Tree Genomes for the Sustainable Economy and the bulk of it will focus on genetics and biotechnology and the challenge of increasing biomass quantity and quality of both pines and hardwoods for the emerging bioenergy /biofuel systems and traditional forest products industries on a finite land base, according to Randy Rousseau, associate extension research professor at Mississippi State University, who is helping to organize the event.

“Environmentalists say they don’t want to see every tree cut down and they don’t want to see anything brought in that might be invasive like in the case of the [genetically modified] eucalyptus,” Rousseau said. “So our hands are being tied by only working with technology that existed back in the 70s simply because, from a forest standpoint, we can’t move into the biotech or the genetic modification field.”

Rousseau, who is researching populous and willow for short-rotation woody crops production at MSU, said that it takes millions of dollars to go through the deregulation process to allow genetically modified trees to be grown and at this time many companies aren’t prepared to do that.

“The genetic modification of trees has been done before and it’s sort of on the shelf,” he said. “People who have it on the shelf don’t see a large enough market for it and don’t want to go through the whole deregulation process. Without the deregulation it just sits there.”

Rousseau said the same is true for biotechnology such as herbicide resistance in hardwoods. Being able to plant herbicide-resistant trees drives the cost of establishment down, which is crucial for developing a forest-based bioenergy industry. 

Despite the challenges, there is movement in the industry. Recently Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour provided Texas-based KiOR with $50 million to help it build five facilities to produce biocrude oil from wood chips and other biomass in Mississippi.

“That’s significant for Mississippi because other than poultry plants, forestry is our biggest industry,” Rousseau said. “You do see some growth here, but there is a lot of room for utilization of biomass in the state of Mississippi, in the state of Alabama and I’m sure in Georgia and elsewhere.”

For more information on the conference, go to