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A New "CROP" for Woody Biomass

By Barbara Coyner

Why aren't wood biomass plants being built in droves?

It's easy to recite the facts on why woody biomass has a promising future as "green energy." The material is abundant, available, and renewable. And it's considered carbon neutral as an energy source. With millions of acres of forests just waiting to be thinned to reduce wildfire danger, woody biomass could potentially power hundreds of homes and businesses. The Avista Utilities power plant at Kettle Falls, Wash., has already been providing woody biomass power to the grid for over two decades, showing just one example of the possibilities. On a smaller scale, countless lumber mills have furnished extra power to utility companies through co-generation plants for years.

Supply Problem

So why aren't they building the plants? In a nutshell: inconsistent supply. For woody biomass power, the key ingredients for success include efficient and affordable transportation; proximity to the power grid; available contractors and appropriate equipment; cooperation among public agencies; and public willingness to let forests be managed again.

Since federal forests offer access to some of the country's major woody biomass sources, it's no longer enough that the Forest Service and BLM conduct 10-year forest inventories or propose occasional timber sales. Power plant developers and investors need guarantees that fuel supplies will be available for the future.

Research Helps Pave Way

Engineer Catherine Mater of Mater Engineering in Corvallis, Ore., knows the supply challenges well. Part of a nationally recognized firm devoted to wood products issues, she's also familiar with the players, the hurdles, and the potential.

Mater's latest research approach to providing consistent supply could kick-start biomass energy projects across the country. Mater's new program, developed for the USFS but now used by BLM and state forestry departments across the U.S., is called Coordinated Resource Offering Protocol, or for the alphabet soup crowd, CROP.

The stars started aligning for CROP as the Healthy Forests Initiative gained traction. Although there's been long-time political resistance to logging, many people watched the West get hammered by wildfires recently and finally agreed that forests need tending. Add to that the current push for green energy, and the time is ripe for something beyond stale forest inventories and occasional small acreage thinning projects.

Mater's CROP depends on a new paradigm called "ability to perform." The CROP analysis still considers forest inventory, of course, but also factors in aspects that affect ability to perform such as NEPA, road-accessibility, and other reality checks. The model allows public forest managers to evaluate for a "levelized supply" at landscape scale, coordinating woody biomass offerings between multiple landowners.

Info Accessible to All

Unlike traditional forest inventory data, CROP information is readily available to anyone wanting to see projected offerings in woody biomass removal over a continually updated five-year period of time.

For example, someone wanting to know how much pinyon pine/ juniper is projected to come off the public lands in Utah, during the next five years, could simply go to the CROP interactive website (www.crop-usa.com on the Internet) and click on "pinyon pine -- juniper." The website would show that 30,000 green tons of biomass (< 4" dbh) per year will be offered through 2012. Also available is detailed information on volume offering per supplier. Overall, 19 CROP reports have been completed on over 50 million acres of national forests and over 10 million acres of BLM forestlands.

"We developed a fill-in-the-blanks model that we take to a district ranger or forest supervisor, and they fill it out according to what they actually believe they can offer," says Mater, who also serves as a Senior Fellow for the Pinchot Institute, an environmental think tank based in Washington DC. "We encourage them to make sure of their figures," she adds, emphasizing that CROP strives for a big picture approach. That means managers are encouraged to analyze landscape-wide. "We ask things in an entirely different format."

Clearly CROP isn't just another bureaucratic gimmick, and Mater says that out of 33 national forests that have engaged in the CROP analysis, only four national forests fell significantly below the indicated CROP volume when offering logs and biomass for harvest. Two of those were California forests hit by wildfire, while two New Mexico forests overestimated what they thought they could offer for harvest.

All in all, CROP is doing what it was intended to do, and Mater points to the CROP study at the Warm Springs reservation in Oregon as an example of how a biomass power plant developed based, in part, on CROP's levelized supply concept.

"Energy companies and investors are tracking this, and it's carrying some clout," Mater says of CROP. "It's an effective tool, and as we move through the barriers, we're seeing more flexibility."

 

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