Fire danger fuels trees-for-fuel plans

Fire danger fuels trees-for-fuel plans

24 January 2007

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USA — After nearly 90 years of sawing pine and Douglas fir logs into lumber,Rough & Ready Lumber Co. is branching into the energy business, building a$5 million plant to burn logging debris and to produce electricity that it cansell at a “green tag” premium to the regional power grid.

The idea of burning wood waste — known as hog fuel — to produce energy atwood products and pulp mills is an old one that was going nowhere as long asfossil fuels were cheap, and logging was cut back to protect fish and wildlifehabitat.

Since Congress reauthorized a federal energy production tax credit forbiomass, solar and wind power last month, at least two other sawmills in Oregonare going forward with biomass projects.

Steve Mueller, president of DG Energy LLC of San Diego, which is building anew plant in Lakeview, said there are three keys. A generating plant needs to beclose to the fuel — trucking little trees much more than 35 miles is tooexpensive. It must be close to a major electrical transmission line. And itneeds to be close to a mill to buy the excess steam.

Burning mill waste and logging debris, which formerly had gone to waste, canreduce the cost of thinning the millions of acres of national forest at highrisk of catastrophic wildfire.

“When you compare the value of the electricity to the value of restoringthe health of the forest, I would say restoring the health of the forest is atleast as valuable as the energy that is produced,” Carlson said.

And the Forest Service has developed just one long-term contract for forestthinning. Without a long-term contract, developers are wary of investingmillions of dollars.

A report for the Western Governors Association estimates biomass in the Westhas a potential to produce more than 10,000 megawatts — about 1 percent of thenation‘s production by 2015. About half would come from forest thinning. Therest from urban waste and agriculture.

Zieroth said having buyers for the trees too small for lumber helps reducethe cost of thinning from $900 an acre to $500 an acre. If forest serviceofficials could expand the market enough to break even, they could easily thin800,000 acres that need it.

Environmentalists are wary. Although they like the idea that biomassgeneration can help pay for forest thinning, they want natural fire to take overonce the thinning is done.

“One should not consider biomass energy sustainable or renewable,”said environmental consultant Andy Kerr, who has been working to help morebiomass projects get up and running. “Because for the most part, afterthese forests have been thinned, you don‘t want them to get thick again,certainly not thick enough to be economically feasible to cut the trees down andhaul them to the biomass energy incinerator.”

For now, the grants and tax credits make construction of a biomass plant toogood to pass up, making it possible to pay back the estimated $5 millioninvestment in four years instead of 10, said Phillippi of Rough & ReadyLumber.

“These plants were always unaffordable because of our size,” saidPhillippi. But with the grants and tax credits, “It looked pretty good. Wewent ahead and did it. We‘re glad we did.”

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