Mass of Potential

The Future of Biomass Grows in Strength 

by Jessica Kirby

The price of U.S. woody biomass is down, says the North American Wood Fibre Review, and so is demand, thanks to low fossil fuel energy costs and an excessive supply of bark left behind by logs bound for China—but interest and initiative in growing the biomass industry is anything but hindered.

The past three years have seen continual drops in the price of woody biomass in the form of sawmill byproducts, forest residues, and urban wood waste with west coast prices sitting lowest in the country, says the North American Wood Fibre Review published quarterly by Wood Resources International LLC. 

A boom in log exports to China is behind the low costs in the Pacific Northwest, because China only accepts debarked logs for import. The resulting abundance of bark at export ports in the western US has driven down the cost, as supply managers are forced to turn away the excess.

Although prices for forest biomass are generally $10-$20/odmt higher than for mill biomass, the abundant supply on the west coast caused the price of forest and mill biomass to drop 15 to 20 per cent last fall, says the report.

As long as prices for natural gas and oil remain steady, so should the price and demand for greener forms of energy like biomass. But market factors haven’t swayed increased government support for the development of biomass and biofuel research programs, particularly in the Pacific Northwest.

The US Department of Agriculture recently announced it will distribute $136 million in grants to kick start biofuel research and development at select universities across the country, including two key investments in the Pacific Northwest region. Washington State will see $80 million in funding split evenly between two of the region’s largest academic research centres: University of Washington and Washington State University.   

Spread over five years, the funds are expected to generate feasible and viable programs that covert tree waste into car and jet fuel. US Agriculture Tom Vilsack says he is confident the program will develop into a long-term, sustainable industry in each region—“I’d bet my life on it,” he says.  “I think we’re that far advanced. I think the question now is, what is the most efficient and effective way to do it, and how do we use what nature gives us?”

According to Richard Gustafson, professor of chemical engineering in the University of Washington’s School of Forest Resources, the facility’s research team intends to focus on the development of two fuel types—one that would replace gasoline used in cars and another that would fuel jet engines. 

Professors and co-directors of the Washington State University project Norman Lewis and Michael Wolcott say WSU’s portion of the grant will explore making jet fuel from slash. Scrap wood from construction projects may also be used in the process developed by the university as part of the research. The remainder of the funds will go to schools in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Iowa.

The investment is one of the largest in the biomass industry to date, prompting interest from major forest companies including Weyerhaeuser, which has announced its intention to develop a research site near Springfield, Oregon as part of the company’s role as a subcontractor on the WSU project. A statement from Weyerhaeuser says the test site will be used to study the effect of “biomass removal, compaction, and fertilization on soil, water, and wildlife.”

The tremendous potential of biomass to create sustainable energy and preserve the integrity of forest lands is widely known, and its development hinges largely on government support, market costs, and investor confidence. The Pacific Northwest Region poses challenges and opportunities unique in the national landscape.

The Biomass Thermal Energy Council (BTEC) held a webinar in November focused on opportunities specific to the Pacific Northwest region. Chad Davis, sustainable northwest program manager for BTEC says the biomass market potential in the western part of the US differs from other regions because of a high amount of federally-managed land, compared with other areas.

Forest lands in Oregon and Idaho are 50 per cent federally managed—a significant increase over the national average of 30 per cent. “That affects our opportunities in terms of resources,” says Davis.

Another issue is growth rates, says Davis. Forests on the eastern side of the Oregon Cascades experience slower growth rates than those to the west. He uses a 20-year restoration effort scenario to predict approximately one million bone-dry tons of biomass may be available annually and an additional 500,000 tons from logging operations. 

If Oregon substituted 25 per cent of its fuel oil with biomass heat, it could supply 1.4 million homes and create demand for three million tons of pellets annually—a significant increase over Oregon’s current demand for 250,000 tons of pellets per year. The result? Approximately $140 million to the Oregon economy, including feedstock value dollars and energy savings.

Biomass production is also hindered by cost. “One of our challenges in the West is that we have small, rural, and dispersed populations and facilities,” says Angela Farr, USDA Forest Service regional biomass utilization co-ordinator for Regions 1 and 4. “For example, in Montana, the total population of the state is less than one million people. Everything gets more challenging when you scale down—smaller systems cost more proportionally and smaller equipment tends to be less forgiving with fuel quality and variations in fuel quality.”

Farr adds that smaller areas lacking supply infrastructure are particularly hard to develop in a way that economically supports even smaller projects. Biomass costs more up front than natural gas or fuel oil, but surpasses the value of either when it comes to payback in energy savings. 

The full webinar can be accessed on the BTEC website at <www.biomassthermal.org>.