Biomass embarks on new technology and legislation


Congress is currently considering legislation that would legally confirm woody biomass as carbon neutral, a move that would be a huge boost for the Washington forestry industry, for forest health and for rural communities.

Dean Rudolf, vice chairman and Western Region director of the Pulp & Paperworkers’ Resource Council, wrote this month in the Spokane Spokesman-Review about the benefits of biomass and why Congress should approve the bill.

Congress is considering whether to require EPA to restore biomass’s carbon neutral rating so long as the ability of U.S. forests to absorb carbon dioxide is stable or expanding. Its action would contribute greatly to controlling climate change and protecting the jobs of those who depend on Washington’s forestry-dependent industries.

The economic and environmental benefits of biomass are clear, Rudolf writes:

Use and sale of biomass helps keep our forest-dependent industries economically vibrant. The total payroll of the state’s forestry and logging, wood products, and pulp and paper industries tops 30,000, according to data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). Washington state’s combined payroll in these industries exceeds $2 billion.

The turmoil in federal policy is all the more unsettling, because, as facilities in nearly every part of the Northwest have been demonstrating for decades, renewable bioenergy from forests is not just a viable but an essential part of the U.S. and global energy solution. Unlike solar and wind, biomass-based energy produces constant electricity. Residuals from pulp, paper, packaging, tissue and wood-products manufacturers account for about 62 percent of U.S. manufacturer-generated biomass energy.

The alternative to this kind of energy generation is depositing them in landfill or incineration without energy recovery. By decomposing there, they will emit methane, which has a 25 times greater warming impact than the carbon dioxide from burning. And removing biomass through forestry activities that encourage tree growth and maintain forest health helps capture more carbon, while preventing loss due to insects, disease and fire.

Rudolf’s op-ed comes out just as an exciting form of woody biomass – called torrefaction – is getting raves from utility, business and political leaders in the Northwest. An Oregon company called HM3 Energy just opened a demonstration torrefaction plant outside Portland, and a partnership between Ochoco Lumber, the Bonneville Environmental Foundation and the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities will conduct a test burn of torrefaction biomass at Portland General Electric’s coal plant in Boardman, Ore., across the Columbia River from Washington.

Like most biomass, torrefaction biomass is made from woody debris but it’s created into a unique product that is designed to be burned at plants that normally burn coal, according to Capital Press. (Here’s a photo of the finished product.)

They essentially roast wood debris in a controlled environment and temperature range, which removes moisture and volatile compounds. The finished product is a light-weight, brittle cube that can be pulverized and burned like coal, but much cleaner.

And it’s not just Oregon that could be a major supplier of wood for torrefaction.

Oregon BEST, an arm of the state business department that provides funding and university research expertise for a variety of energy projects, estimates Oregon, Washington and British Columbia could provide 35 million tons a year of biomass material to torrefaction plants.