Renewable energy mandates may boost demand for slash-derived energy
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
Slash piles left over from logging operations may turn into new sources of revenue for the timber industry.
With the demand for renewable energy expected to rise, some timber companies are studying how to profitably turn woody logging waste into a feedstock for fuel or electricity production.
"This is a proactive step, looking to a future of potential price increases" for renewable energy, said Forrest Costales, forestry engineer with Roseburg Resources, a subsidiary of Roseburg Forest Products.
Industry representatives recently gathered in Springfield, Ore., to discuss the economics of biomass-to-energy conversion as part of a workshop organized by the Western Forestry and Conservation Association.
Traditionally, slash piles have been burned at logging sites because collecting and hauling the material was viewed as cost-prohibitive.
"This is a low-value product and it's fairly expensive to move," said forestry economics consultant Roger Lord.
Across the West, however, several state governments have enacted standards which will force power companies to increase the amount of energy derived from renewable sources.
Depending on each state's mandate, the "renewable portfolio" standard will reach 15 to 33 percent of total energy production over the next 10 to 15 years, said Matt Kramenauer, policy analyst for the Oregon Department of Energy.
Many existing facilities already use by-products from milling operations to generate heat and electricity. As the renewable energy standard in each state rises, the demand for additional sources of "hog fuel" may also increase.
"There's a huge opportunity to continue to grow this usage," Kramenauer said.
Despite policies that encourage renewable energy production, transforming slash into electricity isn't expected to generate fat profit margins.
Electricity rates must be high enough for energy producers to justify paying a reasonable price for hog fuel.
That's particularly true if the hog fuel comes from forest slash, which requires labor to gather and fuel to transport.
"Each time you touch the material, it costs you," said Steve Lawn, operations manager for T2, a company which specializes in forest biomass removal.
Diesel fuel, a major expense in processing and delivery, tends to track electricity prices, he said. When electricity prices rise, so does the cost of producing hog fuel, keeping margins tight.
For those reasons, T2 analyzes each logging site to determine if slash pile removal is economically viable for the company, Lawn said.
As the biomass-to-energy market develops, timber and logging companies may alter how they build roads and landings to make slash collection more cost-effective -- the best way to increase margins, he said.
Even small changes can improve efficiency greatly, Lawn said. "We've learned that the hard way."
The landings from which logging operations are staged should be a major point of consideration, said Costales.
Grinding slash into hog fuel on-site requires more equipment to be packed onto the landing, making it harder for trucks and machinery to maneuver.
When a narrow road runs directly into a circular landing, it's a lot harder to move in and out of the area, he said.
Instead, the road's width should gradually expand until it converges with the widest part of the landing, resulting in an egg-like shape that is easier to enter and exit, Costales said.
The method with which slash is piled and fed into the grinder can also boost productivity, he said.
To turn slash piles into revenues, timber companies will need to incorporate biomass collection into the design of their logging operations, he said.
"Landowners are going to have to start planning on this way early, way in advance," Costales said. "Otherwise, you're going to be missing opportunities."