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Woody Biomass Power —
Now What’s the Holdup?

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Woody Biomass

Woody Biomass Power - Now What’s the Holdup?

By Barbara Coyner

“Wood fuel, one of the oldest energy sources on the planet, could become the newest commodity market if it can overcome supply limits and green concerns as demand grows for renewable energy.” From a May 2011 Reuters article.

Consider this: In Sweden, biomass has outstripped oil as the top source for energy generation, with biomass contributing 32 percent of the country’s total energy supply. Meanwhile, back in the good old U.S. of A, biomass energy ranks at about 3 percent. As western states lose whole forests to beetle kill or wildfire, mega-truckloads of huge wind generator propellers consume gallons of fossil fuel as they’re trucked to their destinations. Ironically, many travel past overstocked or dying forests.

No offense toward wind energy, but is there something missing here? Why does woody biomass fail to gain better traction as a “green” source of energy?

Air Pollution & Non-renewable?

Some people think woody biomass creates air pollution, pointing to emissions from boiler stacks, unaware that the plume rising from the stack is steam rather than smoke. With such uninformed impressions, an industry flunks the test, and woody biomass is relegated to the back burner. “Green concerns,” as Reuters puts it.

Regarding “green concerns,” why did legislators add language to the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 that says, in essence, energy produced from woody biomass from federal land is not “renewable?”

Oddly enough, woody material from state and private lands is considered renewable, yet on federal land, certain laws change the entire equation. In theory, burning wood emits less carbon than fossil fuels because it simply returns to the air the carbon previously accumulated by trees as they grow. Given this “carbon exchange,” moderate logging should be regarded as a prudent move, yet only small thinning projects move forward on federal forests, leaving huge amounts of woody biomass to accumulate and eventually burn. What might become renewable energy becomes air pollution instead.

Competition?

As the news article from Reuters reports, supply is another stumbling block. Some sources report that supply constraints are starting to put wood fuel in competition with the paper industry, replicating the kind of tension produced when the food industry found itself in competition with ethanol producers.

Taking corn from food production to energy production is a reminder that whole industries sometimes compete fiercely for the same limited resource. In this case, pulp and biomass are the cornerstones for both paper products and biomass energy, turning limited supply into a tug-of-war.

Steps Forward

Despite environmental worries and supply issues, however, projects are moving forward. For example, in Burns, Ore., a new wood pellet system at the Harney District Hospital replaced 17,000 gallons of heating oil, replacing $4 per gallon with a $2 per gallon cost. The clean biomass heating system will pencil out in less than five years.

Similarly, in November 2010, Iberdrola announced that construction would begin on a 26.8-megawatt biomass cogeneration plant in southern Oregon. By Autumn 2012, the project should produce enough power for 18,000 typical homes and provide as many as 150 to 200 jobs during the construction phase. Some 50 to 75 jobs will remain once the plant opens. That’s in Lakeview County, which has a population of less than 8,000, yet a 12 percent unemployment rate. According to the Oregon Employment Department, losing 200 jobs in rural eastern Oregon has the same economic effect as losing 26,400 jobs in the Portland metro area, accentuating the importance of every single job to rural economies.

Education Needed

Examining the overall picture on woody biomass, it is somewhat surprising that a big newspaper conglomerate like Reuters ever publishes anything on wood power. In matters of forest health, wildfire danger, and woody biomass power, the American public stays woefully uninformed.

Yet the ramifications of neglecting such forest and energy issues are huge, especially for residents out West. After all, the next big wildfire might be in your backyard, the next energy crisis just down the road. Because mainstream media outlets seldom cover such forest and energy issues, it is up to individuals to dig for their own accurate sources.

Those looking for updates and reliable sources for the latest woody biomass topics might consult the Forest Business Network at www.forestbusinessnetwork.com. This website keeps readers well informed, regularly publishing updates on policy matters and national and international forestry related trends.

Even better, the website has the ability to link up projects and resources. For example, a small start-up biomass venture might be investigating woody biomass sources in the vicinity. The website has a platform that lets a logging contractor or trucker actually advertise availability, sometimes creating a good match with the start-up venture.

Another website, www.evergreenmagazine.com, continues to publish in-depth articles about forest issues related to woody biomass energy, as well.

In a time of nationwide discussion on alternative energy and green power, it is wise to remember that national choices do affect us personally. Those in the timber industry especially know the potential for woody biomass. They also know the drawbacks better than most of the general public. By passing on positive stories such as those in Oregon, and also sharing reliable websites, we can do something about increasing awareness — and respect — for woody biomass energy.

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