Is burning wood the green way to healthier state forests?

The state Department of Natural Resources is moving ahead with pilot projects on biomass energy — burning wood waste for power. The new version of burning wood could be an economic and climate winner.
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A wood slash pile in a Washington forest.

The state Department of Natural Resources is moving ahead with pilot projects on biomass energy — burning wood waste for power. The new version of burning wood could be an economic and climate winner.

The 2010 legislature has moved us a step closer to reducing our carbon footprint, improving forest health, and reviving local economies — by burning wood.

Second Substitute House Bill 2481, signed Friday (March 19) by Gov. Chris Gregoire, lets the state Department of Natural Resources sign long-term contracts with private companies to supply "biomass," aka wood wastes, in specific areas. Unlike traditional contracts to cut trees on state land, which must be exercised within two years, these are five-year deals that can be extended up to three times, making them potentially 20-year deals. The department would also be able to sign leases of up to 50 years with companies that installed semi-mobile biomass processing plants on state land. No company will invest capital in biomass facilities if it's only guaranteed raw material for two years. 'ꀜWhat we (have heard) from the market," says the DNR's Craig Partridge, 'ꀜis that we need to be able to do something longer term."

In January, the DNR announced that it would work with private firms on four biomass pilot projects in widely separated parts of the state. Nippon Paper, which operates the mill in Port Angeles, will put in a bigger, higher-termperature boiler to produce industrial heat and electricity, some of which it will sell. In Omak, Atlas Products will use wood waste to produce pellets for burning in pellet stoves.

In Stevens County north of Spokane, Borgford BioEnergy will use wastes to generate electricity and produce bio-oil, syngas, and bio-char (a leftover of production process which locks in carbon and can be used as a soil amendment); the company hopes ultimately to have ten such facilities around the state. And at the SDS Lumber plant in Bingen, next to White Salmon, Parametrix will produce liquid fuel — that is, cellulosic ethanol — and will develop mobile processing technology that could ultimately be used out in the woods. The 2009 legislature authorized DNR to launch pilot projects, envisioning two. But the DNR received more than 30 letters of intent, and decided to go with four.

As DNR looks at the options opened up by this year's legislation, the agency doesn't plan to put up any state money. It will put up the raw materials, offer contracts or leases, and pursue federal grants for startup funds.

There's nothing novel about burning wood, of course. The DNR hasn't just discovered fire. People have been starting fires for perhaps 790,000 years. In the Pacific Northwest, we burn wood for heat in fireplaces and iron stoves, burn it for cooking and aesthetics on beaches and campsites, burn it just to get rid of the debris from logging or pruning or storms. Lumber and pulp mills have burned wood wastes to heat boilers and have burned them to generate electricity for moe than a century.

What's new? And, since we all know that combustion produces carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that contributes to — or, depending on your theological orientation, does not contribute to — global climate change, what's so green about it?

The basic idea is that if you don't burn the forest any faster than it grows, then carbon sequestration keeps pace with carbon release, and you're at least carbon-neutral.

Right now, the DNR's Craig Partridge says, the raw material is available in the form of slash piles. Of course, that logging slash has been there for the taking all along. The reason it hasn't been taken more widely as a source of energy is that it's heavy, and is therefore difficult and expensive to haul. If you're going to haul it more than 50 miles from the source, the operation just won't pay. Therefore, the real key may be mobile technology that lets you process the wood close to where it lies.

There has been optimism expressed by DNR about mobile processing. And of the four pilot projects, that suggests that the Parametrix venture in Bingen will be the key one to watch. The others may pencil out, but they won't push the technology.

This is only partly about green energy. In fact, while green energy would be the product, it isn't the main reason why Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark is interested in biomass.

Former Commissioner of Public Lands Brian Boyle, who now leads the University of Washington School of Forest Resource's Northwest Environmental Forum, says, "You have to start with the fact that the forests are in this unbelievably bad condition . . . bug-killed, disease-riddled." The national forests are in the worst shape, but the state lands are bad enough. The pine forests of eastern Washington are a mess. Lodgepole pine doesn't mature over the centuries to form great cathedral groves. Left to its own devices, after a century or so, it weakens, dies, gets eaten by bugs, and finally goes up in flames.

Wildfires used to burn vast areas. Critters would find other places to live. The lodgepole seeds, which require heat to open, would sprout and start the cycle again.

Over the last century, though, people have kept the woods from burning, and built houses among the deteriorating trees. The dry branches and trunks can provide the fuel for massive fires. And if the woods burn, the critters have fewer options than they once, thousands of houses — and their inhabitants — will be threatened, and air quality, which nature didn't worry about, would go into the toilet. So no one wants the fires. But removing the dead trunks and branches and thinning out the diseased trees would be expensive. No one wants to pay for it. In other places, 'ꀜsalvage logging'ꀝ has been viewed with suspicion, as a ruse for letting loggers into forest that would otherwise be off-limits. But in much of Washington's lodgpole country, no one really wants the trees. Virtually all of eastern Washington's sawmills have shut down.

How do you make it worth someone's while to take some of the kindling off the land? How do you create at least some blue-collar jobs in nearby communities? And, oh yes, how do you get at least a little money for public schools and other institutions that are supposed to benefit financially from state forests? That's where biomass comes in — if the pilot projects work out.

"One of the elegant aspects of the forest biomass to energy efforts," says the DNR's Rachael Jamison, "is that, in addition to producing energy, you can improve forest health."

At this point, "a lot of [the wood] doesn't have any particular economic value," Boyle says. It's "just a lot of stuff." So how do you make it worth someone's while to go in and remove it? 'ꀜConverting to biomass produces an economic value for that," Boyle says, "and enables you to do forest restoration."

Boyle thinks the future lies not in burning the wood directly for energy but in converting it to cellulose-based ethanol for use as liquid fuel. Goldmark is a fan of liquid fuel, too.

Jamison suggests that if this all works out, eastern Washington "can come out as a national leader in clean energy."

It would be nice to do that and to make money, but the state's real goal is finding a way to break even. Boyle argues that if you figure in the avoided costs of fighting fires and loss of tourism and other income, biomass looks pretty good. Partiridge says he "sure can't fault" that analysis, but the DNR hasn't been able to factor in its avoided general fund costs. "Looking at the break-even point," he says, "we don't count the potential savings on the general fund side of the agency." He suggests that the legislature might be the right place to do that analysis.

The impact may go well beyond publicly owned forests and the communities that have historically depended on them. If you develop technology and infrastructure for turning wood waste into energy, you may also be making it just a little bit easier to retain forests on private land. Boyle and a lot of other people see the main threat to Washington forests as decisions by private owners to make more money off their land by converting forests to something else. Sell it for housing developments or strip malls or whatever. Any financial incentive to keep the trees will help. "If there isn't some way that a landowner can make a buck," Boyle says, "then, basically, the answer is to convert it."


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.