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Is it Time to Sing Kumbaya Yet?
By Barbara Coyner
Is it a case of the lions lying down with the lambs, to use the old biblical metaphor? Suddenly, environmental groups and timber interests are talking in less hostile tones, agreeing that maybe it’s time for peacemaking. Perhaps some of the old factions of extremists — tree huggers and timbers beasts alike — have finally grown weary of verbal combat, analysis paralysis, and lawsuits and now want to work together.
Woody biomass is indeed uniting previous enemies, and the pages of TimberWest feature some of these stories on successful partnerships, along with successful outcomes. With the Forest Service going $400 million in the red on firefighting funds last year and strong air pollution laws on the books, woody biomass makes complete sense as an alternative to burning slash. There should even be federal funds reallocated for prudent thinning projects, especially where dead and dying trees are just ripe for catastrophic wildfires. Environmentalists and industry people alike should be pushing for such a sensible approach — and many are.
In the West, woody biomass sources are abundant. In the woods, piles of limbs, stumps, bark, and roots all qualify as fair game for the chipper and grinder. The cleaner the piles, the more lucrative the operations are (For a real life story on such an operation, refer to the March/April 2013 TimberWest article, Biomass to the Bank.). In the mill, bark and wood residues from the milling procedures all add to the woody biomass supply stream. Some mills already utilize their residues and hog fuel onsite to generate biomass power.
It’s not an automatic assumption that all woody biomass turns into green energy, however, as pulp mills, overseas markets, and niche markets for animal bedding and beauty bark all want a piece of the pie. Sadly, federal lands, still largely in lock-up mode, keep much of the material unavailable. In a word, woody biomass power remains “complicated” because of the uncertainty of supply and plain old politics.
One source of optimism, however, is the monthly energy review put out by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The 2012 report notes that net electric generation for woody biomass increased to 37.54 terrawatt hours (TWh), while the woody biomass production level for the same period of 2011 was 37.45 TWh. According to the EIA, the U.S. produced 3.35 TWh of power from woody biomass in December 2012, an increase over the 3.22 TWh generated in November. Regarding power generation from waste biomass, the U.S. produced 1.76 TWh of electricity in December, an increase over the 1.43 TWh generated the month prior. Power production from waste biomass for all 12 months of 2012 equated to 20.03 TWh, an increase over the 19.22 TWh reported during the same period of 2011. The EIA estimates 367 trillion Btu of wood were consumed to generate power in the U.S. during 2012, an increase over the 348 trillion Btu reported in 2011.
Woody biomass power has gained traction. Not that the collaboration process is easy or fast. As Jordan Hemaidan, a partner in the renewable energy group at Michael Best & Friedrich LLP, noted in Biomass Magazine, the challenges to large-scale biomass projects are real, and some environmentalists will probably never sing Kumbaya with timber interests. Predictably, opposition to woody biomass energy centers on questions of over harvesting, carbon neutrality, and soil health. Tip the scales on any of these concerns, and you can quickly turn a love fest into a brawl. Some people calculate carbon credits differently, some still resist all logging, and environmental lawyers still sniff out new cases. That is reality.
Full Speed Ahead
But some projects seem to face no opposition at all. Indeed, some are embraced by what used to be competing factions. That’s why we see Fuels for Schools projects moving ahead in a variety of states, not to mention biomass boilers for hospitals, jails, and other community buildings. As a recent report from researchers points out:
When the right technology is matched with the right setting, woody biomass can offset the costs of other fuel sources, especially fuel oil and propane. As of January 2013, 297 institutional facilities have been identified as operational. Since concluding the study, the number of systems has continued to grow, reflecting the dynamic changes occurring in this arena. More than two-thirds are in the Northeastern U.S. Fifty-nine percent are secondary schools. The remaining facilities are predominantly higher education buildings.
(From the State of Institutional Woody Biomass Facilities in the United States, a report just released by the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities. More on the report is available at www.usendowment.org.)
It is encouraging to see opposing groups now sitting down together to work on forest issues. In the West especially, there is an ongoing need to address overstocked forests, bug kill, and wildfire danger. With green energy high on the list for our nation’s future, woody biomass projects offer a win-win opportunity. Yet, according to the report above, one troubling fact continues: most projects are happening in the eastern U.S. and in overseas venues — not in the West.
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