Funding for an untapped renewable resource: woody biomass on public lands

Aug 7, 2012

You could call it power that’s growing on trees, but doesn’t get put to good use.

The US Forest service recently announced $4-million in grants to support projects that convert wood to energy. It's part of a program that's meant to support small businesses that create jobs while encouraging alternatives to fossil fuels.

More than a quarter of the 20 grantees this year are in Washington and Oregon. Six projects here are receiving more than $1.3 million for final design, permitting and cost analysis.

The basic idea is to create markets for low-value trees and other scraps of woody biomass that could fuel wildfires if left on the forest floor. It might be beetle-infested or too skinny to mill.

Butch Blazer, the Deputy Undersecretary at the US Department of Agriculture overseeing the Forest Service, says that material has to be removed to keep managed forests healthy.

“We need a place to go with it. And the kinds of projects that we’re talking about funding here are exactly the kind of facilities that we need to take this material to,” Blazer says.

Right now, it’s often placed in slash piles and burned out in the open, or hauled to landfills.

The six grantees in the Northwest are designing wood-powered boilers that will generate heat and power from the scraps. They include a paper mill and a hardwood mill in Port Angeles, the Quinault and Coquille tribal governments and the Oregon National Guard.

Energy from woody biomass does produce some greenhouse gasses, but the forest service says the boilers they’re funding meet the highest air-quality standards and reduce dependence on fossil fuels.