Everyone wins with biomass initiatives

Peter Goldmark, commissioner of public lands, is off to a quick start in his effort to create a new, green industry on state lands. Goldmark, who is just beginning his second year as the leader of the state Department of Natural Resources, has been a strong supporter of biomass initiatives - turning the limbs and woody debris left over after a stand of trees is logged into new sources of energy.

The Department of Natural Resources manages 5.6 million acres of forest, range, agricultural, aquatic and commercial lands on behalf of Washington residents. About 3 million acres is state trust land that provides revenue to help pay for construction of public schools, universities and other state institutions. Generating revenue from those trust lands is a primary mission of Goldmark’s office.

A year ago, lawmakers passed House Bill 2165 which authorized the Department of Natural Resources to take the initial steps toward two biomass energy pilot projects — one in eastern Washington and another in Western Washington.

This biomass initiative may well lead to alternative energy sources and at the same time improve the environment.

Today after a logging company moves through forested property, the remaining woody debris is generally pushed into huge piles that are burned. Slash burns pollute the air and pose a serious health risk for people suffering from breathing problems. The burning is a terrible waste of natural resources.

Goldmark believes that woody debris can be put to a much better use. He says removing biomass feedstock in ecologically sustainable ways to produce energy — liquid fuels or heat and electricity — can:

 • Provide income for forest landowners while improving forest health.

 • Create rural jobs.

 • Reduce wildfires and greenhouse gas emissions.

 • Aid in the production of renewable energy.

In fact, Goldmark believes that wood biomass from forests has the potential to supply half the energy consumed by Washington residents.

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.

Last summer, the Department of Natural Resources invited companies to submit letters of interest to become partners in the biomass pilot projects. In a recent interview with The Olympian’s Editorial Board, Goldmark said he was encouraged by the amount of interest, the number of potential partners and the variety of energy proposals.

DNR selected four pilot projects Wednesday to turn biomass from state forestlands into clean energy and jobs.

In advance of the legislative session, Goldmark prepared a couple of bills to move to the next phase of the process — Senate Bill 6236 and House Bill 2481. The bills do not require an appropriation from the state’s financially strapped general fund. Both bills had hearings in their respective committees earlier this week.

The bills give DNR authority to maintain a list of forest biomass available on public lands. DNR can then use those inventories to limit the sale of forest biomass when it is determined that the supply in a region or watershed is depleted.

Secondly, the legislation authorizes the department to enter into forest biomass supply contracts for terms of up to five years. The legislation also would allow DNR to lease state lands for the supply of forest biomass for a term of no more than 50 years.

“The bio-energy industry is under economic stress, and this bill will make it easier for them to encourage investors,” said Goldmark. “This bill will also allow DNR another opportunity to generate revenue and help spur rural economic development.”

Goldmark also said securing reliable and predictably priced biomass feedstock supply is a major obstacle to maximizing the benefits of the emerging biomass energy economy.

But even with these legislative measures, Goldmark’s plan remains somewhat in doubt. Private landowners in the state, including Weyerhaeuser and Simpson Investment Company, have long dreamed of a day when slash from their own forests could be used to fuel their energy-intensive manufacturing plants. Unfortunately, the historic cost of slash-to-energy conversion has rendered the process largely unfeasible. Until the price of power reaches a level high enough to justify this cost, or until yet-to-be-unveiled technology lowers the cost of biomass conversion, Goldmark’s plan faces major economic hurdles.

Nevertheless, it’s exciting to think where this creative initiative might lead eventually. It has the potential to transform forest practices to be friendlier to the environment and at the same time generate much needed energy and revenue for the state of Washington.

Everyone wins.