Forestry’s new frontier

Published 9:10 am Saturday, December 26, 2009

What will our trees be valuable for in the future? Will they continue to be the raw material for building products and paper or will new markets develop? A prominent media message in recent years has been climate change and the need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

One option is to use more wood for our energy needs. Why? There are many reasons. Wood, or biomass as it is often called, is renewable. Wood is also carbon neutral. It consumes carbon in the air while growing and then releases it when burned. Also, we have a lot of wood in the United States and we are growing more every day. One often-overlooked reason to use more wood for our energy needs is that the money spent for energy generation stays right here at home and reduces the amount of money sent overseas to buy oil.

Currently, the most-used wood product for the generation of energy is biomass. This material, the limbs, bark and other parts of the tree that cannot be used for a finished product, is left over after mills have used the rest of the tree. Typically, the material is processed through a chipper. Once at the power station, the biomass is burned to generate steam, turn turbines, and generate electricity. Currently the largest biomass power station in Virginia is the Pittsylvania Power Station near Wise. This facility consumes in excess of 500,000 tons of material per year that would otherwise be left in the woods. The facility generates 80 megawatts of carbon-neutral electricity with the only by-products being water vapor and wood ash.

Wood pellets are another product that can be used to generate heat and electricity. The wood that is used to make the product is similar to the wood that a paper mill uses. The residential wood pellet is a popular way to heat homes in the colder northern climates. The pellets can be delivered in bulk and can be fed into a pellet stove automatically, making it a very easy way to warm a house. The industrial pellet is used similarly, only on a larger scale. The pellets are typically used with coal-burning power plants, crushed, and fed in with the coal. Pellets are preferred because most of the moisture in the wood has been removed. An even greater opportunity may lie in an advanced process for pellet making called the Torrefaction system. In this system the wood is processed in a way that yields almost the same BTU value per ton as coal. The worldwide market for pellets is forecasted to increase significantly due to climate change legislation.

Cellulosic ethanol (CE) is another product from the forest that has great potential. CE is similar to corn ethanol except it is made from wood and agricultural waste. The wood needed to make CE is similar to the biomass used to generate electricity. CE has an advantage over corn ethanol in that it takes a third less energy to produce. CE is used just like corn ethanol as an additive for transportation fuels. The manufacturing cost to produce CE is high, but continues to decrease as the manufacturing process improves. CE is also preferred to corn because it doesn’t affect food prices.

There is no doubt that we will hear more about utilizing wood for energy in the future. Potential Cap and Trade legislation will give producers of these wood products the assurance they need to make the investments in new facilities. It will also give forest landowners and loggers another market for their wood. Most importantly, it will supply a portion of our nation’s energy needs while simultaneously keeping money circulating in our American economy.