Wildfire danger fuels interest in mills

Wildfire danger fuels interest in mills toburn wood waste for electricity

20 January 2007

published by sports.espn.go.com

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

“It’s ripe,” said Rough & Ready President Link Phillippi, who hopes tohave a 1.5 megawatt plant up and running by this fall. “There are the economicbenefits, the benefits of healthy forests, and the benefit of a country needingrenewable energy — clean energy.”

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.

But leaders in the timber industry realize that energy production can helpfinance widespread thinning of national forests to combat wildfires and insectinfestations.

And the concept has a newer, catchier name — biomass energy — that helpsalign it with the wider movement linking economic and environmental concerns,including reducing dependence on fossil fuels.

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.

Another is slated for Arizona in conjunction with a long-term U.S. ForestService thinning project there triggered by the massive 2002 Rodeo-Chedeski fire.More are foreseen in California, which has a long history of generatingelectricity from forest thinnings.

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 it needs to beclose to a mill to buy the excess steam.

Plants burning forest thinnings and waste from lumber and pulp mills generateabout 2,500 megawatts nationally — far behind wind power in production,popularity and government support — said Bill Carlson, chairman of USA biomassPower Producers Alliance.

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.

“We are giving the forester, the manager of the land, another economic toolto work with, whether it is to thin the forest, remove disease, or just forgeneral economic activity,” said Allyn Ford, president of Roseburg ForestProducts, which already has a biomass generator at its mill complex in Dillard,Ore.

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

Two things are holding it back, people in the industry say. Federal energycredits for biomass remain about half the levels for solar and wind power,something advocates hope to see corrected this year.

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.

“If the Forest Service got serious about this and wanted to solve 50 percentof the (forest thinning) problem over the next two decades, there might be 5,000to 10,000 megawatts of biomass power,” said Carlson.

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.

Spurred by the massive Rodeo-Chedeski fire of 2002, which burned 400 homes,the Apache-Sitgraves National Forest in Arizona has let a 10-year contract tothin 150,000 acres that is generating small logs for lumber, wood pellets forstoves, and fueling a 3 megawatt biomass plant, said Forest Supervisor ElaineZieroth.

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.

Future projects are being developed, but likely will remain small, geared tolocal needs and conditions, said Marcia Patton-Mallory, biomass coordinator forthe Forest Service.

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,” saidenvironmental consultant Andy Kerr, who has been working to help more biomassprojects get up and running. “Because for the most part, after these forestshave been thinned, you don’t want them to get thick again, certainly not thickenough to be economically feasible to cut the trees down and haul them to thebiomass 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,” said Phillippi.But with the grants and tax credits, “It looked pretty good. We went ahead anddid it. We’re glad we did.”

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