Making forests pencil out


It’s hard not to get excited about biomass. The wood waste from timber harvesting used to be burned off on-site, which was no use to anyone. But now that same wood waste is a critical and sustainable source of energy.

It seems like not a day goes by without news of another exciting biomass initiative. The Chinook Observer on Washington’s Long Beach Peninsula just wrote about Weyerhaeuser’s biomass production at its largest timber harvest site, near Toutle. The Observer story also notes that Washington is the country’s biggest producer of woody biomass.

Here’s one passage that helps illuminate just what happens when biomass is produced:

The (wood) bundles are fed into a horizontal grinder, which breaks them down into a chunky, splintered woodchip material, also called “hog fuel” or “biomass.” The product is then delivered within a 50-mile radius to facilities – such as paper mills, concrete plants and sawmills – where the biomass is burned in large boilers to create steam and generate electricity. Longview Fibre and Grays Harbor Paper are just some of the companies that are reaping the benefits of this renewable energy made from wood waste.

In other biomass news, Crosscut, a Northwest news and opinion site, just ran a piece describing the new biomass bill passed by the Washington Legislature, and the benefits of wood waste.

For instance, biomass’s reach is wider than most people realize:

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.

While the biomass bill covers public forestland, the increase in biomass production will have larger benefits, according to the story:

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.”

In the end, that may be the most important legacy for biomass: making it economical for private forest landowners to preserve their land. Mowing down forests for development is one curse that the timber industry and environmental community can agree on.