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September 22, 2010Blog

Wood-to-Energy Developments

Renewable Energy World

Earlier this month a 25 x 25’ working group released its recommendations for a national wood-to-energy policy. This paper, a precursor to a more formal roadmap, focuses on developing woody biomass as a renewable energy source by establishing reasonable production targets, ensuring sustainability, increasing supply, encouraging appropriate production scale and efficiency, and ensuring proper accounting and data collection.

According to the working group, “several recent studies show that the role of wood in the production of renewable energy can be substantially increased, doubling or tripling the amount of energy it provides today while at the same time meeting our goals for providing for the needs of traditional forest industries and markets, and providing essential environmental services such as clean water, wildlife, and biodiversity.”

However, a weak economy and woody biomass market have discouraged private landowners from making necessary investments in their forest land. Proper forest management activities can substantially increase forest growth and production. For example, traditional logging and natural disasters, such as hurricanes, leave behind large amounts of woody biomass, which reduces productive growing space, provides fuel for wildfires, enables insect infestations and increases the need for prescribed burning, especially a problem in densely populated areas.

The report added that using wood to meet America’s energy needs, if done properly with a sustainable, well developed land and production management plan, will improve wildlife habitat and water quality, decrease our carbon footprint, restore health to public forests, insure the preservation of private forests and provide raw materials needed by our wood products industry, while at the same time supplying a growing bioeconomy.

Some key recommendations of the working group include:

1. Establishing production mandates which create new demand for existing yet un- or underutilized woody biomass;

2. Ensuring sustainability;

3. Increasing supply by encouraging forest management techniques which increase production;

4. Encouraging appropriate facility scale and production efficiency; and

5. Developing reliable accounting and data collection systems for all energy sources.

From our perspective, this is easier said than done. Production mandates will be difficult to implement. Further, the cost of feedstock transportation is a significant issue, often eating away at any profits. Even with the increased production resulting from improved forest management techniques, the cost of transporting the feedstock to the production facility will be a challenge. Another consideration is whether the production facilities can be constructed in a way that they could be portable and move closer to another feedstock source as one is exhausted, perhaps even as a bolt-on facility to a biofuel production facility or a more traditional lumber processing or paper producing facility.

Efforts are underway in the Southeast United States to develop wood-to-energy facilities in conjunction with the region’s logging and paper industry. The relationship between the wood-to-energy industry and the traditional logging and paper industries will need to be further developed so that they are working in unison, especially given the extensive common ground the two industries share. In costal South Carolina, for example, wood-to-energy facilities often face competition for woody feedstock from the local paper industry. Organizations such as the South Carolina Biomass Council are actively promoting the use of woody biomass and the development of sound policies that will encourage the successful integration of the two industries.

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