Logging and Sawmilling Information for the Western United States

January  2001 - Volume 26 Number 1



Fuel Instead of Fire

Wheelabrator Shasta Energy Co., Inc. sees thinning as a way to reduce fire and create energy 

By Kurt Glaeseman

The summer of the year 2000 will be remembered as a hot one, fueled by the forest fires that exploded through dry timber or smoldered for days in terrain that made final mopup tedious if not impossible. Some were the result of lightning strikes; others from machinery or cigarette sparks; still others from "controlled burns" that wouldn't remain controlled. Afterwards, people shook their heads in disbelief. The waste of potential economic products was staggering. 

Entire forests had disappeared in smoke. Curiously enough, the bottom line was not that fire is the ultimate culprit. Some of the industries most dependent upon forest products still recognize the value of controlled burns...
and the value of preparing a forest so that a burn would not do complete or devastating damage. Steve Jolley, Fuel Manager for Wheelabrator Shasta Energy Co., Inc., is concerned about what goes on before a fire: "Fire is a good tool. We need to continue using it, but we need to use it judiciously. With a fire you may get what you want, but often not - you might wind up with a skunky little fire or a big one that takes over the canopy." 

Jolley works for one of the successful cogeneration systems that depend on biomass for the production of their salable energy. A forestry graduate from Purdue University, he earlier worked as a thinning forester under Gaylod Briggs of Roseburg Lumber. Briggs realized that Roseburg had a high percentage of forestlands on gentle slopes and saw the advantage of easier thinning and the resultant biomass produced at a cheaper price. Jolley remembers the lesson - biomass works best on flat ground and a forest thinned to prepare for introduced fire will make biomass available. From 1985 to 1990, 60 biomass power plants appeared in California, all in response to the California Energy Commission idea of offering incentives to diversified sources of energy. 

Thanks to the oil embargo, the plan met with high interest. It was attractive to invest in power plants, many of which were established on a 30year plan. Unfortunately, the prices were established and fixed for only the first ten years. When deregulation came into the picture, the eleventh year returns from PG&E and other utilities were down, so they were suddenly encouraging plants to curtail or stop their production of electricity. 

Creosoted railroad ties being unloaded by Prentice 610
Steve Jolley in front of some green trimmings
Cull logs, when available, are used at the plant
CAT Grapple and a cull log

The number of biomass plants slipped to about 40. Then in the summer of 2000 there was a sudden shortage of electricity. High temperatures, higher utility and natural gas prices, and rolling brownouts pointed out the need for more electricity. This should have been a windfall for plants like Wheelabrator, who were ready to receive a higher tonnage of biomass. With 89 million acres of forest in the moderate to high fire risk category, it seemed time to do wholesale thinning and decrease the fire risk. 

The biomass plants were ready. Unfortunately, the Administration's plan to thin the forests did not include the lumber and logging and biomass group in the solution. The controversial view of a managed forest untainted by private economic gain may have satisfied those who wanted no saws, no logging trucks, no transported chips. But the resultant "boutique solutions" that seemed to favor rather quaint cottage industries simply produced small potatoes...and left biomass plants hungry. To make matters even more difficult, the traditional cheap but good hog fuels that are available now go to the highest bidders - for such things as decorative landscape, particle board, and animal bedding. 

Jolley points out that the largest desirable source of biomass is sawmill waste and unwanted forest products. White fir is very high in BTU's, as is the bark of Doug fir, if it is not excessively high in moisture. Obviously the timber industry is very important, but the plants need more, so they have been forced to seek elsewhere. Today Wheelabrator adds other fuels to their list: trimmings from walnut, almond, olive, peach, and kiwi orchards; tree stumps; walnut, almond and pistachio shells; peach, prune, olive and almond pits; mixed waste paper (often wax coated cardboard); creosote treated railroad ties; pallets; urban green prunings; and occasional cull logs. 

These deviations do not come without a cost. All metal must be removed from the pallets, so they have to go through a magnet and a sensoring device. Stumps bring in a lot of unwanted soil and gravel. Contaminants from dirt and grease have to be monitored. Often fresh prunings hold an excessively high moisture percentage. And some of the logical alternatives did not pan out at all. Surprisingly, wornout U.S. paper money has presented no problem: Apparently if you have money to burn, it can be recycled in the process. When trucks arrive, they are weighed inbound and a sample of the load is taken in a ziplock bag and delivered to the outbound scales. 

The sample is dried to a "bone dry" stage, and the calculated percentage of moisture is assigned to the whole load. A typical 25ton load could well be 50 percent moisture, so Wheelabrator would consider this as 12.5 tons of fuel. The truck dumps to an out feed, which passes the load through a magnet and metal sensors. It then goes up an incline to a "scaler," a big long table with a series of axles and numerous wheels. The smaller stuff falls through and the bigger stuff passes over into a hog. All is then picked up by a stacker and taken to the fuel pile. The stacker is basically a big long arm with a belt. When fuel piles high enough to hit a sensor, the stacker moves forward. Once in the power plant, the fuel feed system fills up the hoppers and augurs the fuel into boilers to be burned. 

The basic process sounds simple - burn fuel to create heat to turn water into steam which goes into a turbine and then a generator. But the bank of computers in the control room would indicate something other than simple. Bob Crawford and Jerry Rovenstine monitor information about each generator, interpreting data from a series of little red numbers in black boxes. Keeping an eye on the fuel system is Crawford's major responsibility. He must watch for electrical storms, analyze wet fuel, monitor the boilers, and watch the emissions going out to the stacks. 

Rovenstine speaks in terms of 900 pounds of inlet steam at 900 degrees, exhausting at 100 pounds of steam (the steam pressure left over). The exhaust pressure is used to satisfy heating and drive requirements at a paper mill. "It's a different system with just another advantage" says Rovenstine. It may be less efficient because you are taking it off site and bringing nothing back, but you are selling a product. To be considered a true cogeneration plant, you have to sell both steam and electricity." There are advantages to this classification: It creates multi revenue streams and if natural gas is used, there is a break in the pricing. 


Two of the three landmark towers with heavy ash reject piled in foreground (left)
 Recently installed step-down turbine
A hoist and gravity help unload this truck
 Fuel Manager Steve Jolley indicates critical reading lit up in red cedar at a cheaper price
Silver pipes circulate water and steam.

Steve Jolley maintains that bioenergy is a worldwide issue. But he also sees the immediate issues closer to home. "I believe bioenergy could be the most important element in solving forest fuel problems in the West. Thinning is an answer," says Jolley. "It incorporates the use of trees so small they have no economic value anywhere else. We ought to be building power plants concurrently with our forest thinning programs." According to Jolley, the recent General Accounting Office (GAO) report on "Catastrophic Wildfire Threats" says there are 40 million acres of federally managed forest lands that are in danger of burning up and there is no cohesive strategy to deal with this. Jolley does some conservative math, "If we had access to these forests, and if they produced 25 green tons and four thousand board feet of lumber per acre, there's a real economic potential and an incentive to manage the forest intelligently. At 25 tons of green fuel per acre, that would give us a billion tons. 

If all that green fuel were close to Anderson and if it were processed and delivered, it would produce enough fuel for 1400 years." (Jolley's figures are indeed conservative. In some forest 60 tons of green fuel are removed per acre.) It appears that the government is willing to do some thinning, but according to Jolley, "The devil is in the details." The forest products industries must be included in the planning. If everything is planned and funded by the federal government, local control is gone. The local economy may have to pick up the tab for some of this, but such a course of action would give industry confidence that there will always be a source of fiber. "We've got to get an administration that doesn't just do the bidding of major environmental groups," says Jolley. "They don't agree among themselves. In the 1950s there were maybe a dozen land trust groups like Nature Conservancy, but now there are over 1200. What they often do is buy the land and turn it over to the government or buy the land usage rights. 

These are incremental steps toward nationalizing private property. Little by little we are losing individual rights under the guise of a protective government. "The government is going to have to step up to the plate. Give us twenty years, and we'll remove marketable product including the higher valued sawlogs. We can do this without always using appropriated funds which can forbid us to use sawlogs. This administration is still under the control of those who say timber harvest on public lands. I say we can do better. We can fuel our plants and at the same time help preserve forests from devastating and wasteful fires."

 Kurt received a Master's in English at Stanford, and taught English and French for 33 years in Sunnyvale and Willows, Calif., before he became a freelance writer. He's written for a variety of Northwest magazines, including Northwest Travel, Sports Afield, and Western Horseman. 

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