Spokane Journal of Business

State DNR plans to study biomass supply, sustainability

Agency to name consultant to peg long-term volume of material from forests

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The Washington state Department of Natural Resources expected to name a consultant this week that would conduct a study to estimate the amount of woody biomass available from timberlands in the state on a long-term sustainable basis for energy production.

The department called for proposals from consultants interested in doing the statewide forest biomass study after receiving earlier this year a $1 million grant from the U.S. Forest Service to conduct the evaluation and perform some forest health improvements.

"Existing studies of biomass availability need refinement and improved detail if we are to achieve the goal of creating new businesses and jobs without causing unwanted environmental consequences," state Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark said in announcing the grant earlier.

Those previous studies are out of date, don't cover the entire state, aren't focused specifically on biomass, and don't address how site productivity, ecological requirements, or landowner objectives limit availability of biomass, says a request for proposals. It also says the previous studies don't address the operational and cost factors of harvesting and transporting biomass and fail to address other factors.

Understanding biomass supply across diverse land ownerships is especially important in Eastern Washington, where forests are less productive than on the West Side, there is less forest land, and federal agencies manage a larger share of the landscape, the RFP says.

"No single land manager has the capability to supply and sustain new biomass ventures at a large scale" in Eastern Washington, it says.

Avista Corp., which operates one of the nation's oldest wood-fired electrical generating plants, at Kettle Falls, Wash., has said in recent years that it has become harder to find fuel for its plant, and fuel must be transported farther, increasing costs.

In 2009, the DNR approved a series of biomass energy projects, gained legislative authority to enter into long-term contracts for supplies of biomass from the forests it manages, and engaged in talks with those interested in forest biomass energy projects in the state, the RFP says.

One of four pilot projects, in Springdale, Wash., planned by Borgford BioEnergy LLC, of Colville, Wash., will be a state-of-the-art energy-production facility that will produce 7.8 megawatts of electricity, bio-oil, synthetic gas, and bio-char, which can be added to soil, the DNR says. "The long-term goal is to establish 10 facilities of this kind in the Northwest to speed up forest fuel reduction efforts," it says.

One megawatt of electricity is enough to serve about 700 homes. Bio-oil, which comes from wood, can be turned into heating oil or biodiesel.

The DNR says that using forest biomass for liquid transportation fuel, heating, and power generation would result in the removal of small trees and brush that currently are left behind in forest harvest operations, which increases the amount of fuel available for wildfires. Biomass plants also would add to Washington's emerging green economy and help address climate change while providing income for forest landowners, the agency says.

While previous biomass supply studies have mostly examined "coarse-scale factors" such as total forest growth, the new study "will refine and improve upon existing estimates using finer-scale data," the DNR says. "Essential considerations like individual land managers' objectives, physical and economic factors for biomass availability, and environmental sustainability will also be built into a range of supply figures projected over time."

The additional information will help biomass investors as they make decisions on where to develop biomass plants and on how big to make the plants' capacity for output, the DNR says.

It says work on the study will start in mid-November.

  • Richard Ripley

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