Forest limbs, debris power us to the future

Today after a logging company moves through a stand of trees, the remaining limbs and woody debris are generally pushed into huge piles that are burned.

So-called slash burns pollute the air and pose a serious health risk for individuals suffering from breathing problems. Slash burns are a terrible waste of natural resources and can spread into uncontrolled wildfires.

State lawmakers and Peter Goldmark, commissioner of public lands, recognize those facts and have put a process in place to create two pilot projects to turn piles of woody debris into fuel. It’s an exciting opportunity that may well lead to significant changes in the way forest lands are managed in this state. Goldmark believes that wood biomass from forests has the potential to supply half the energy consumed by Washington residents today.

That’s an exciting possibility. Just think about the potential when massive amounts of tree stumps and broken branches are transformed into electrical power or fuel for machines.

The pilot projects – one in Eastern Washington and one in Western Washington – are an important first step in the state’s new biomass initiative.

This year lawmakers passed House Bill 2165, which gives the Department of Natural Resources the green light to set up the two demonstration projects. If there’s a downside, it’s that no money was provided, so Goldmark and his staff must be creative to pull this off.

The state agency has called for proposals from biomass suppliers, researchers, tribes and labor along with owners and investors in conversion facilities. DNR staff members will sit down with experts and by the end of the year select the two winning proposals. Goldmark expects the two biomass projects to be fully operational in 2010.

As noted in the analysis of HB 2165, the Department of Natural Resources manages 5.6 million acres of forest, range, agricultural, aquatic and commercial lands for the benefit of state residents. About 3 million acres are state trust lands that generate revenue to help pay for construction of public schools, universities and other state institutions, and to pay for public services in many counties.

Goldmark and his staff have the responsibility to manage those resources and balance the need to generate a sustainable stream of revenue against environmental protection and demands for recreational use of state property. We use the forests intensively for products such as lumber and furniture, then we regrow the forests for sustainable harvests. It’s a delicate balance, but biomass conversion represents a potential new source of revenue.

The forests have an abundant supply of woody debris – to say nothing of urban waste that includes discarded wood and yard waste. In the greening economy it makes sense to turn that debris into a fuel source.

This isn’t about fixing broken, corrupted or irresponsible industry practices. It’s about using the hope of new technology to do even better.

There are multiple advantages, not the least of which will be healthier forests. If the state can find a way to thin forests – to get rid of bug-damaged trees and those that are inhibiting the growth of timber-producing trees – our forests will be healthier. With healthier forests come fewer fires and substantial savings in firefighting costs.

Biomass conversion will create jobs in rural parts of the state and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The advantages to the environment are considerable. Slash fires can smolder for days and release substantial amounts of smoke. According to information from the state Department of Ecology, in some cases individual slash fires release more pollution in several hours than some large industrial plants do in a year.

Outdoor burning releases carbon monoxide that interferes with the body’s ability to absorb oxygen. It can cause headaches, drowsiness, and even death at high concentrations.

The particulate matter released in slash burns – tiny particles of soot, dust, and unburned fuel – clouds our skies and obstructs our views of scenic areas. Chronic diseases such as emphysema, asthma, bronchitis, and cancer have been linked to exposure to fine particulate matter.

Ecology officials also note that for people with compromised health, outdoor burning can cause coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, dry throat, headaches or nausea.

So there is every good reason to reduce the number of slash burns and at the same time use the woody debris to create green jobs and alternative forms of energy.

The key for the state is to match forest biomass supply with demand from the private sector.

Some of the technology for biomass conversion already exists. Washington already hosts a number of centralized electricity and heat co-generation facilities that convert woody debris into heat that generates steam that powers turbines that produce electricity. The downside is the cost of transporting the debris to the co-generation facility.

What about taking the technology into the forests where the debris is located? How about emerging technology to liquefy the debris and turn it directly into fuel?

Those are the kinds of questions that will – we hope – be answered with the two pilot projects.

It’s exciting to think where this creative initiative might lead and how it might transform forest practices to be friendlier to the environment and state residents.