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TimberWest January/February 2011

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Getting the Straight Scoop in an Age of Confusion

By Barbara Coyner

Google “woody biomass energy” on any given day — you’ll getabout 175,000 hits. Thanks to technology’s free flow of information, we can read the opinions of the green energy crowd, the venture capital and investment crowd, the naysayers, the snake oil salesmen,the timber industry — and everythingin between. Anyone with an internet connection can now be an expert. That makes it difficult to reach any solid conclusions.

With solar and wind energy being the fair-haired darlings in many government circles, woody biomass energy often seems the ugly stepchild of the family. One day it gets favorable reviews, but the next day, opponents describe woody biomass as the next rapeand ruin saga by that evil “Big Timber” conspiracy. Sometimes it appears the groups who make their living litigating environmental issues just can’t come to terms with the forest industry expressing its concerns over overstocked forests, wildfire, and carbon storage issues.

biomassEvergreen State College Saga
An interesting chapter playing out at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., illustrates the point. According to a press report in February, officials from Evergreen State College were pushing for an exemption from a Thurston County moratorium on new woody biomass projects, so the college can use wood waste rather than natural gas to heat the campus.

The idea is to build a woody biomass gasification plant, with proposed financing for the project including a $3.7 million state Department of Commerce grant. The college has to be under contract to build the project by June 30 to receive the money. The college also seeks $3 million in state capital funds in the next, financially challenged state budget.

The Thurston County moratoriumon woody biomass projects is obviously heartburn for Evergreen Vice President John Hurley, who has to balance a real budget for a college known to have afairly starry-eyed student body. The mass was two total project cost is about $14 million, but the moratorium means necessary capital fundraising would be seriouslyhampered.

It’s a welcome-to-the-real-world moment at Evergreen, and the college’s Sustainability Council expects to add its opinion in March. Council members predictably fret about the carbon neutrality issue, and of course forest health, yet according to experts, the project would reduce the college’s carbon footprint by 3,290 metric tons of carbon dioxide peryear and move the college closer to itsgoal of being carbon-neutral by 2020.The project would use about 12,000 tons of wood debris a year, which is roughly 3 percent of the available forest wood debris in Thurston and Lewis counties, college officials said.

Polarized on Biomass
The Evergreen case study will be interesting to watch as a sample of the polarized attitudes toward woody bioenergy. The stop-the-action approach adopted by Thurston County provoked by actions across the county line in Mason County, where multi-million-dollar, industrial-sized biomass combustion plants are proposed. The controversy even turned
ugly when vandals caused $2,000 worth of damage to the Olympic RegionalClean Air Agency building by gluing all the doors locked and throwing a brick through a window.

Yet the biomass gasification facility that Evergreen State College is considering is much different than the type of biomass combustion facility that has critics throwing their hands in the air, said Peter Moulton, bioenergy policy coordinator for the Washington State Department of Commerce.

“What’s happening in Washington is the same as what’s happening across the country,” Moulton said in an interview. “People have legitimate concerns about public health in an area that’s not well established by the medical or regulatory communities. There are concerns about emissions. But most of those concerns are not well founded in science.”

According to biomass proponents, biomass energy is nothing new. People have been burning wood for ages. What’s brought about interest in biomass facilities in Washington in the last several years is the nationwide push toward renewable fuel sources. In areas surrounded by forests, slash and mill residue can support large-scale facilities, Moulton said. Moulton is quick to explain that he doesn’t support low-efficiency, high- emission biomass projects, for it is projects such as those that have “poisoned the dialogue” about biomass.According to Moulton, biomass gasification is a far more complex process than throwing wood on the fire. Not only is wood a renewable resource, but if it can be burned almost as clean as natural gas,then it’s worth look into, he said.

The Big Picture
In the big picture, as news articles and opinions gobble up more of the storage capacity on Google, woody biomass energy could become a potential issue for environmental fundraising. Any project threatening to take timber out of the woods seems to provoke certain suspicions.

Yet as devastated college budgets threaten to do away with whole departments and reduce faculty, it is interesting that some programs might be rescued by the very industry that some naïvestudents have sought to shut down.

Where can we find the truth about the goods, the bads, and the uglies ofwoody biomass? Google the topic and see what today’s answer is. No doubt there will be a whole new set of opinions by tomorrow!

Since this column was written, Evergreen has pulled the plug on this project. Hopefully future projects are better able to get off the ground.