Grants Spur Interest in Using, Harvesting Woody Biomass

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Industry News for September 2005

The high costs of using woody biomass for years prevented the market for this raw material from gaining widespread acceptance. However, change is on the horizon.
Thanks to grants awarded by the U.S. Forest Service and the gumption of numerous small businesses, the benefits of using woody biomass — tree parts and woody plants that often are the byproducts of forestry operations — may soon outweigh the costs.
Twenty grants totaling $4.4 million were awarded in accordance with the 2003 Healthy Forest Restoration Act to help communities, entrepreneurs, businesses, and local governments fund projects
and research that will turn hazardous fuels into marketable wood products, liquid fuels or energy.
“President Bush’s Healthy Forest Initiative is improving forest health and reducing the risk of catastrophic fire,” said Agricultural Secretary Mike Johanns. “These projects will help our efforts to reduce hazardous fuels and improve forest health while increasing the nation’s renewable energy supply.” In the process, the projects should also provide loggers with the information they need to make profitable the harvesting of woody biomass.
The benefits of using woody biomass for producing energy are significant. For example, biomass energy produces fewer toxic emissions and is ‘carbon neutral’ — thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
However, a major obstacle yet to be overcome is the cost of harvesting and processing the material. The projects supported by the grants will help overcome this obstacle by removing economic and market barriers that often arise when dealing with small-diameter trees and woody biomass.
The grants will support emerging research on biomass applications ranging from fuel reduction efforts to the development of safer procedures for workers to the purchase of more efficient equipment.
When employees at the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) saw a February notice in the Federal Register requesting pre-proposals for grant projects, they jumped on the opportunity and designed a project that will give substantial insight specifically to loggers. The institute works with organizations around the world to promote resilient family farms, rural communities and ecosystems through research and education, science and technology, and advocacy.
Biomass energy “is a new area of sustainable economic development, and there are a lot of unknowns,” said Don Arnosti, forestry director for the institute. “This project is designed to shed light on some of these unknowns related to equipment, cost, and sustainable biomass harvest limits.”
IATP formed a partnership with forest managers, loggers, and two local power plants. Together they will conduct test harvests in areas of national forests that are not economically viable for traditional harvests yet nonetheless require management.
Because of 100 years of fire suppression, a substantial amount of material has accumulated and created a fire risk. Loggers are interested in removing this biomass for profit, and IATP is interested in making sure the removal is done in accordance with sustainability standards, explained Ben Lilliston, IATP’s communications coordinator.
Twelve test biomass harvests will be conducted on about 180 acres of the Superior National Forest. Information from the test harvests will be published and will help loggers familiarize themselves with operating conditions, equipment, and costs related to biomass reduction. Research data will also help establish sustainable biomass removal parameters that will protect future site productivity and wildlife habitat.
The objective of the test harvests is two-fold: to provide loggers with the economics of similar harvests and allow researchers to determine the effects of harvests on soil nutrients and wildlife. Information about the costs and procedures of harvests will prove invaluable to loggers who are accustomed to removing large trees and are unsure how productive and efficient they can be when harvesting biomass; the information will help them harvest biomass profitably.
According to Ben, loggers are so excited about the new opportunity that they likely will begin exploring other markets for woody biomass before the project is even complete. Interest has been high, but loggers have not been willing yet to take the financial risk. Once this information is available, however, he is confident loggers will take full advantage of it.
To facilitate the sharing of information, field trips will be conducted throughout the duration of the project. Loggers will have an opportunity to watch the process and learn firsthand what works and what does not.
The tangible benefits of the project are expected to be extensive. For example, one type of test harvest will be conducted on land that is similar to 39,000 acres of national forest land that contains diseased timber. Insects have infested the area, and the wood is decayed. It would cost $618 per acre to remove the dead and dying trees and conduct controlled burns.
“The National Forest Service needs $24 million to treat the area — money it doesn’t have,” said Ben. “However, this project will transform this cost into an $82 per acre income and $3 million in revenue.” The Forest Service will be able to harvest the damaged timber and sell the wood biomass.
Similarly, another 600,000 acres of national forest land requires thinning. The cost would be about $338 per acre. Projected savings through utilization of the project: $280 per acre, or $168 million total.
The two and one-half year project began this summer. It will cost $170,000 in addition to the $250,000 grant awarded by the Forest Service. The additional funds are coming from the partners in the project. Grant recipients were required to match the federal money by at least 20%.
“This is an ideal place for public research money to go,” said Ben. “These projects will open doors and allow the private sector to move forward with more confidence.”
Those involved can also be confident that there will be plenty of interested buyers once the material is readily accessible. Already, schools, sawmills, power plants, and other entities are experimenting with ways to use woody biomass for energy. New environmental regulations will ensure a continued interest in biomass energy.
Although the U.S. did not sign the Kyoto Treaty — a worldwide effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — more than 170 American mayors have made their owncommitments to the treaty’s requirements and targets. Alternative energy sources, such as biomass energy, will be necessary to meet these goals. Countries that ratified the treaty and are not as forested as the U.S. already have begun to explore options for importing wood biomass.
In addition, Massachusetts and Connecticut have mandated that their electric suppliers add renewable energy to their energy portfolios, and other states will likely follow suit.
With all of these factors falling into place, a market for woody biomass has the potential to help sustain the health of forests while increasing profits for loggers and providing an alternative energy source. It seems like a winning combination!