One Key to Energy Independence

Woody Biomass will play a roll in our energy future, but what that roll will be is still hazy

By Barbara Coyner  

Slash bundles being loaded in John Day, Oregon.

Fact: Approximately 44 percent of the nation’s renewable energy is generated by the forest products industry, topping hydroelectric, ethanol, wind, and solar.                                   

“And it’s the only one of those not subsidized,” adds Craig Rawlings, the smallwood utilization guru at Montana Community Development Corporation, based in Missoula, Mont.                                   
With the nation’s new determination to break free of dependence on Middle East oil and chart a prudent energy course, experts say woody biomass could possibly displace 30 percent or more of the nation’s present petroleum consumption. With woody biomass available, countless laboratories in the U.S. are scrambling to develop cheaper procedures to turn mill and forest residues into cellulosic ethanol.

“The bio-fuels picture changes everyday,” Rawlings says. And indeed it does. On any given day, his company’s internet site,, distributes several new articles focusing on bio-energy development. Daily news features tout the latest sawmill jumping on the co-generation bandwagon, and chronicle progress on projects such as those at Rough and Ready Lumber Company in Cave Junction, Ore., and Freres Lumber at Lyons, Ore. Rough and Ready could soon generate enough power for 700 homes, and Freres up to 5,400 homes. It’s sensible utilization, given the fact that forest residues constitute 25 to 45 percent of harvested wood.                                   

But woody biomass has plenty of competition, with everything from algae to straw being considered for volume ethanol production. Corn, the front-runner, is turning controversial because it pits food production against energy production. Corn-based ethanol production is expected to plateau at 12 to 15 billion gallons per year (far short of the 100 million gallons needed to replace 30 percent of the nation’s gasoline use by 2030.)

Investing in Technology
“Cellulosic is the answer,” says Ed Leinburger, president of Pur Vision Technology of Colorado. “But right now, it costs more to design and build plants to convert straw or wood to sugars.” A host of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and scientists wager that those production costs will decrease as refining methods are proven and adopted.                                   

For example, Range Fuels, a cellulosic ethanol company founded by Khosla Ventures, will build its first ethanol plant in Georgia this year, with capacity to produce over one billion gallons of ethanol annually. Georgia pine is to be the renewable fuel source. And Chevron and Weyerhaeuser have combined their corporate clout to investigate cellulosic ethanol production on a broad scale.  

Morbark tubgrinder at work in Medford.

Using woody biomass for energy is nothing new for the forest products industry. • Sawmills have long operated co-generation plants that provide ready energy for mill operations and also supply excess power to the grid.

• The University of Idaho has heated 90 percent of its buildings and water with woody biomass for over two decades.

• Avista Utilities has had its Kettle Falls wood-fired plant on-line in Washington for over 20 years, powering area homes and businesses with woody biomass.

• Using the renewable supply of wood chips and residue available from Northwest forests, Fuels for Schools has been generating clean wood heat for schools in Montana and Idaho.

Activity in the Woods In a remote corner of western Montana, foresters are now evaluating slash and burn versus biomass, considering whole tree yarding. Adding a few extra minutes to the processing time, the extra 15 feet of topwood is limbed and stacked in a separate pile. The tops are then valued with a different pricing formula.                                   

Those working around the Fortine Ranger District have learned to modify contracts to reflect the handling of such material. The recovered wood goes to hew wood, Fuels for Schools, pellets, posts and poles, and pulp. Records show that by the end of April 2007, Region 1 of the Forest Service had sold 300,000 tons of slash, with 980 million pounds of slash-related carbon dioxide taken out of the atmosphere.                                   

In Medford, Ore., the city is removing wood debris from its landfill and finding other similar sources, now generating 17 percent of its power from wood waste. Biomass One, a 25-megawatt power plant, furnishes energy to some 25,000 households per year, and an added powerhouse will take the capacity to 30 megawatts in the near future.  

Behind the Medford energy project is a roster of new technology, including electrostatic precipitators that remove fine ash particles from the boiler exhaust stacks. Three Morbark 1200 tub grinders provide the muscle to pulverize the wood waste, with 650 horsepower engines and twelve-foot diameter tubs handling the mass.

Equipment Makes the Difference
Industrial tub grinders, such as the Morbarks, are in a constant state of improvement. But even before woody biomass is chipped, it has to be gathered. This has been a challenge for years, because it’s not easy to gather woody debris and transport it economically from remote locations on narrow, winding roads. However, with the country looking for new energy sources and ways to reduce wildfire fuel, there’s increased urgency to find solutions.                 

John Deere recently showcased its new, three-machine woody biomass processing system at John Day, Ore. In the demonstration sequence, the first machine, a harvester, goes into the area and cuts small-diameter wood. Right then, the operator makes the decision on how to utilize the tree — cutting it into logs, poles, or limbs and slash. A slash bundler follows a short time later, using a boom arm to gather up the limbs, small debris, and slash for biomass bundles. The bundler can pick up 200 to 400 pounds in one bite and feed it into a roller that then compresses it into a “log” wrapped in heavy twine, with the resulting log dropping out the back.                                   

The third machine, a forwarder, uses a knuckle boom loader to pick up the bundles, load them on a trailer, and haul them out of the woods.                                   

One bundle of biomass material, produced by the John Deere 1490D, can produce one megawatt of electric power, according to the company. Biomass in this form can store up to two years, plus the combustion problems associated with chips are minimized. Similar forest biomass technology has been at work in Europe for six or seven years, but with stepped-up          

The Univ. of Idaho wood-powered steam plant.         

North American interest, the U.S. could pass Europe in the number of operating forest biomass machines in as little as three years, if the lack of viable biomass markets don’t limit the expansion. On the Montana front, woody biomass transportation has been front and center for Montana Community Development Corporation. This July, the organization and its partners sponsored a demo on another aspect of the roll-off bin and bunk concept, adding roll-off capabilities to a forwarder. The roll-off concept allows more agile equipment to trade bunks and bins around to transport small logs and woody biomass out of the woods more efficiently and at lower cost.

Don’t Celebrate Yet
Thanks to new energy concerns, new technology, and new ways of thinking, the wood products industry stands ready to provide a host of answers. As Forest Service woody biomass coordinator, Ed Gee, admits, “There has been a mission shift in public values because of climate change, prolonged drought, wildfires, and a shift in population to rural areas. There has been a call to action.” But for the small rural communities that envision their loggers and sawmills taking on a new and more stable role, it’s not quite time to break out the champagne yet.                                   

Gee thinks the nation has to reward risk and reduce barriers, to invite industry and venture capitalists to participate. He also knows communities and environmental organizations have to be on board. “If you don’t have these, you don’t have a woody biomass project.” For the experts, location is key to making woody biomass plants pay off. The generation plant must be near:

• the fuel supply — trucking little trees over 35 miles gets too expensive.

• a transmission line                                   

• a mill that will buy the excess steam.                                   

One possible crimp in the idealistic win-win scenario advanced by woody biomass proponents is, “Who gets the woody biomass?”                                   

Take the case of fiberboard plants that rely on sawdust and wood chips— some are already feeling the pinch as energy production chomps into wood fiber supply. A large fiberboard plant uses 800 to 1,500 tons of raw wood fiber and sawdust each day. They are in direct competition with Oregon’s ten (and counting) industrial sites using woody biomass combustion boilers to power steam-driven generators that produce electricity.                                   

When it comes to energy, things are changing quickly. But a couple of things are not likely to change soon. The U.S. will continue to focus on renewable energy as it breaks free of its dependence on foreign oil. And woody biomass will continue to be an option for the emerging technologies that can make use of it.   

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