Gathering Lays Out Facts on
Waste Wood Energy
Chips being delivered to
off-campus storage area.
By Barbara Coyner
wildfire dangers and overstocked forests encourage some strange bedfellows. It’s
no secret that timber workers don’t always get respect from the college campus
crowd, but a conference held this winter on waste wood energy production lined
up logging contractors and college professors, elbow to elbow, as problem
solvers. The conference, staged by the Inland Northwest Forest Products Research
Consortium, also drew foresters, energy consultants and community development
strategists. The big question for everyone: Can all those wood wastes from
overstocked forests be put to use as energy rather than potential wildfire fuel?
Conference organizers delivered real case studies, such as Todd Brinkmeyer of
Plummer Forest Products in Plummer, Idaho, who runs the only strictly
small-diameter log mill in Idaho.
The UI steam plant, in the
heart of campus.
Along with cranking out 2x4’s, the
facility produces five megawatts of power per day, which is sold to the regional
utility company. “By today’s technology we’re old,” said Brinkmeyer of the
non-pretentious power plant built in 1982 and powered by a large mid-50s vintage
Westinghouse boiler. As a Qualifying Facility, the Plummer plant devours nine
truckloads of hog fuel per day, with 30,000 tons per year of wood waste coming
from its own mill and another 11,000 tons coming from outside sources. To keep
things simple, the plant sells all its power to the grid, then buys back what it
needs. Brinkmeyer says that while the system is old and under-maintained, it is
a workhorse plant that breaks even economically, showing that even older
technology provides something of a track record, especially with the abundance
of wood waste available.
Ditto for the University of
Idaho’s steam plant at Moscow, which has a proven track record since 1986, and
is one of only two campuses nationwide heating (and sometimes cooling) with
wood. The boiler unit consumes 200 tons of waste wood per day, furnishing heat
to 70 percent of campus buildings and 90 percent of the steam used campus-wide.
“We power a whole lot of showers when the students are on campus,” said steam
plant manager Mike Lyngholm. “As a matter of fact, 7:30 am is our peak use.”
Lyngholm says the UI system is practical because it is near mills, has a large
storage area for the fuel, and puts tons of otherwise wasted wood to good use.
Piloting the large chip trucks
through campus, of course, is a challenge as the campus grows up around the
steam plant, but cost-wise, the university is money ahead. For example, one day
in October the steam plant went off-line, with natural gas stepping in as a
substitute. The day’s comparison showed that wood carried a price tag of $1,700,
while the daily cost for gas was $7,000 for the 12,000-student campus. “Wood
isn’t as simple and clean as natural gas, but it doesn’t seem to have the price
spikes that electricity and gas have,” said Lyngholm, noting that the storage
and handling of waste wood, and specialized equipment present the major
challenges. Tinkering with existing technology, a school district in Montana’s
Bitterroot Valley is wading into the wood-fired energy business under the “Fuels
for Schools” program instigated with National Fire Plan monies.
After the wildfires of 2000,
Montana very much wants to remove potential fire danger by thinning both public
and private forests. That’s nothing new to the logging community, but both
industry and communities adjacent to the woods still need to answer questions on
supply, capital investment costs and practical solutions. Nan Christianson of
the Bitterroot RC&D and Mike Tennery of the Forest Service say heating with wood
is old hat in New England. “The technology is proven, but we’re working with a
wood supply nothing like New England’s,” Tennery said. Going out on the
proverbial limb, schools in the Bitterroot fired up a wood-fed gasifier plant in
October, according to Christianson. The school district figured that private
lands can provide the necessary 30 truckloads of waste wood per year for the
pilot program, with 15 to 20 percent savings over natural gas, 40 to 50 percent
over heating oil, and 50 percent or more over propane or electricity. At $30 per
ton, the waste wood competes very well after capital investment costs are
recovered, and the district will test clean chips versus material straight from
slash piles in the future. In a win-win scenario, the school district can wean
itself somewhat from fossil fuels and their volatile price fluctuations, plus
provide local jobs, healthier forests and clean heat.
Christianson said community
support for the wood-fired system had to be courted initially, in part because
of concerns over air pollution. Once residents were told that the plume coming
out of the stack would be water vapor, not smoke, opinions relaxed. “This system
is much cleaner than burning your typical woodstove in the home or burning slash
piles,” she said of the gasifier, which burns at 1800 degrees and produces
little ash or smell. “The downside is that the schools have a ninemonth calendar
and ideally the system should run year around” (Tennery added that hospitals and
prisons would be good candidates for the system but “Fuels for Felons” might not
be as popular a label).
Trying to get their hands around
the issues of economics and dependable supply, both logging contractors and
researchers learned more about Timberjack’s work with a new bundling machine,
which would make woods cleanup and wood waste transportation more efficient.
According to Richard Bergman of the Forest Products Lab in Madison, Wisconsin,
Timberjack has a prototype nearly ready. Clarkston, Washington logging
contractor Ray Moss is also developing a unit that bales woods residue for
easier handling and storage.
Moss, who has long run on-site
chipping operations, expects his prototype baler to be up and running soon. With
problem solvers ready and willing, and proven technology available, the issues
still boil down to supply and costs, both somewhat dependent on the fickle
western forest politics. UI steam plant manager Mike Lyngholm said it best. “If
we expect capital investment, there has to be a guaranteed supply. You’ll spend
a minimum of $10 to $20 million for a typical new plant and you can’t do it on a
promise and a whim.”
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