Using more waste timber material could lead to more jobs
By STEVE BROWN
OLYMPIA -- More than twice as much biomass could be recovered from timber harvests without negative impacts on Washington state's forest health, researchers say.
Biomass is a byproduct of harvest, including limbs, tops and waste woody material removed from trees before they are hauled away.
"It is not saw logs," Peter Goldmark, commissioner of public lands, said.
Traditionally the waste is piled and burned, but the state is researching ways to use it profitably to produce energy.
The study found that of 4.4 million tons of biomass produced by all forest operations in 2010, about 30 percent was potentially available for commercial utilization.
However, only 30 percent of that was actually used, Goldmark said.
"This shows there is ample supply for existing uses and opportunity for additional utilization," he said.
The numbers take into account what would remain on the forest floor to ensure its ecological health.
Goldmark has pursued pilot projects across the state to convert biomass to energy: for heating, electrical power generation and fuel. The expansion of the bioenergy sector would lead to more jobs, more energy and more revenue, he said.
The study did not project any numbers for those benefits.
Bill Herrman, of Herrman Brothers Logging Co. on the Olympic Peninsula, said he helped gather data for the study, seeking answers for questions like: Is it worth the trouble? What is the benefit? Is this a political exercise or a real benefit?"
He said one truck can haul enough biomass to equal 1,500 barrels of oil. The price, he said, is competitive with oil prices.
Herrman Brothers harvested 10 percent of the 600,000 tons of dry biomass retrieved, of that. In the process it added 25 to 30 jobs and developed new machinery, trailers and trucks.
"We're very happy to help start this new industry," he said. "There's enough to get energy and leave enough for the critters, too."
Peggy Polichio, of the U.S. Forest Service, said other states plan to conduct similar studies following the protocols and tools created in the Washington study.
"The data will help make sound business decisions," she said.
Goldmark called the biomass industry a "tremendous opportunity across the landscape," in the process addressing wildfire prevention and forest health issues, especially in overstocked stands in Eastern and Central Washington.
When asked how the conversion of biomass to energy would affect the carbon footprint, he said, "Most biomass is material that would otherwise release carbon into the atmosphere for no good use. This way we get jobs and revenue out of it."
The state Department of Natural Resources will work with industrial users to position facilities where the supply is. Transportation costs make it uneconomical outside a 40- to 50-mile radius, he said.
The University of Washington School of Environmental and Forest Sciences conducted the study across all ownerships, starting in the fall of 2010. It worked in cooperation with TSS Consultants, DNR and the Forest Service, which provided a $1 million grant.
Two workshops, one east and one west of the Cascades, will provide more detail on the study findings later in the spring.
By the numbers
The first-in-the-nation study of the supply of forest biomass found:
* Each 1,000 board feet of commercial timber volume makes 0.44 tons of biomass accessible to processors.
* Of the 1.4 million tons of potential market biomass, around 0.6 million tons were sold to facilities under 2010 costs and market prices. The amount left in piles at landings due to low market prices amounted to 0.8 million tons.
* The 2010 market could have sustained the production of 1.3 million tons at a price of $100 per ton.