Where Is the U.S. Wood Chip Industry Headed?

In Vermont, some schools, commercial and state buildings are moving to wood chip heating systems, plus there is a wood chip to electrical energy plant and another proposed. Do you think this trend will continue or will it be overshadowed by other technologies? – Ken J., Vermont

Forests, which contain the U.S. woody biomass supply, have the ability to be economically productive ecosystems while providing vital services; they filter clean water, store carbon, mitigate flooding, shelter wildlife, and offer recreation. Yet the loss of forest product markets, steadily rising property taxes and rising management costs are threatening the economic viability of private forests (2/3 of our forested land) in addition to local communities that suffer due to the paper mills closing.

Expansion of the bioenergy industry is one tool that can help slow down encroachment by urban sprawl, reduce the threat of forest fires and improve the health of forests by creating a market for forest thinnings, while driving local economic development through the creation of jobs in rural communities.

Technologies to convert woody biomass to a liquid transportation biofuel are already gaining in momentum with projects such as the Range Fuels facility in Georgia and the two New York facilities—Catalyst Renewables and Mascoma Corporation—to name just a few. Technologies to produce liquid transportation biofuels have garnered much of the attention and funding from the public and Congress, but the conversion of woody biomass for electricity and thermal power are important options as well, especially as the price of natural gas increases.

To develop long-term woody-biomass energy policy however, considerable attention needs to be given to conservation practices and the groups that have been historically involved in forest policy. Sustainability, can be encouraged through appropriately-scaled production facilities. Here lies the opportunity for power and electricity production using woody biomass, especially for rural communities where schools, government buildings and other institutions may be able to be retrofitted with small scale, high-efficiency boilers and gasifiers. Incentives should be awarded to assist in covering feasibility studies, capital investments and other production costs.

Programs such as the Fuels for Schools and Beyond Program do just that. Officially part of the National Fire Plan, this program helps use non-commercial small diameter material and low-valued trees removed through forest restoration activities—such as reducing hazardous fuels, handling insect and diseased conditions, or treating forestlands impacted by catastrophic weather events—as feedstock for small gasifiers, high-efficiency wood and pellet boilers in schools and public buildings.

Furthermore, biorefineries where energy is derived from biomass to create electricity, thermal power, liquid transportation fuels and biobased products is critical. Utilization of waste from one process as the feedstock for another, minimizes waste, increases sustainability and greatly increases economic viability. The production of multiple products provides a hedge against volatile energy markets. As the trend to build biorefineries gains in popularity, so will the production of electricity and thermal power from woody biomass.

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