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Field Tour Season Kicks Off with Students Concerned about Energy and the Environment

By Betsy Fradd, Washington State University
June 2015

A group of enthusiastic college students curious about the impact of poplar and bioenergy visited an outdoor classroom eagerly asking plenty of questions.  Western Washington University (WWU) Environmental Studies students toured the Advanced Hardwood Biofuels Northwest (AHB) Pilchuck demonstration site in late May and discovered how growing hybrid poplar is advantageous as a short rotation, woody energy crop and the different ways sustainable production impacts soil, water, and wildlife.

WWU instructor Charles Barnhart says students in his Applications in Energy Production class are interested in knowing more about energy resources and climate change mitigation.  “The tour gave students an opportunity to see energy technologies in ‘real life’ and put their theoretical understanding in a practical context,” said Barnhart.  “These environmental sciences and economics majors are also building an understanding of the biofuel life cycle from soil to hydrocarbons and learning about potential employment opportunities in their community.”

Two poplar specialists from AHB consortium partner GreenWood Resources explained the hybrid poplar breeding process and the logistics of planting and growing poplar on the 95-acre site.  Students also learned about specific biomass trials being conducted and how biofuel and bioproduct industries may impact the future environmental equation.

Students examining the poplar trees
College students tour the AHB Pilchuck demonstration site.

Senior Whitney Fleming thinks utilizing poplar is a good idea but has some concerns.  “I think poplar (for bioenergy) is moving in the right direction but I’m not sure it’s at the point where it’s economical, sustainable, and feasible on a large scale,” said Fleming.

While at the Pilchuck site students also heard about the best geographic areas to develop biofuel and biochemical industries.

“As an instructor I want students to understand the research and the motivation for research behind hybridization and growth trials, ” said Barnhart.  “I want them to understand the challenges and success involved and the scale and role bioenergy can play in the climate/energy crisis solution.”

Upcoming field tours include June 30 in Hayden, Idaho; August 17 in Stanwood, Washington; and September 15 in Jefferson, Oregon.