Wash. biomass study: ample supply for existing, new users

By Anna Austin | March 13, 2012

Washington State Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark has unveiled the results of a comprehensive state forest biomass study, findings of which indicate that only about one-third of the state’s commercially available biomass is currently utilized.

Goldmark began a March 13 press conference by explaining what the study considered to be biomass—a byproduct of routine timber harvests, largely composed of tree limbs, tops and other wood waste created during the processing of trees prior to hauling the logs off site. “Until recently, biomass was piled in slash piles adjacent to roads where logs were hauled off site, and then burned on the spot,” he said, emphasizing that biomass is not saw logs.

Since Goldmark took office in 2009, one of his major efforts has been creating value from the state’s forest biomass. “Over successful legislative sessions since that time, I’ve received authorization from both the legislation and the governor to facilitate power projects with businesses to convert forest biomass to energy in different locations across the state, modify Department of Natural Resource sales requirements for valuable materials to allow for long-term supply agreements, to partner with Washington State University and the University of Washington to conduct a power project to convert forest biomass to jet fuel, and finally, to conduct a statewide study to determine the supply of commercially available forest biomass,” he said.

In order to encourage commercial utilization of forest biomass while ensuring ecological health of the forest landscape, it’s crucial to understand the potential supply and also study biomass left on the landscape for forest health, Goldmark pointed out. To accomplish this, a $1 million grant was provided to the state DNR by U.S. Forest Service. The University of Washington and TSS Consultants won the competitive award to conduct the biomass supply study across the state landscape, across all ownerships.

The Washington Forest Biomass Supply Assessment commenced in 2010, and Goldmark said a major conclusion is that 4.4 million bone dry tons (BDT) of forest biomass was produced by state logging operations in 2010, and out of that number, 1.4 million BDT, or roughly 30 percent, was potentially available for commercial use. “Out of that 30 percent, only about 30 was utilized in 2010, leaving another .08 million BDT available for additional utilization,” he said.

That conclusion demonstrates that there is ample supply of forest biomass for both existing and new users, according to Goldmark.

An additional finding of the study is that sufficient biomass is left scattered on the landscape, both preexisting biomass and as the result of timber harvest. “Approximately 66 percent of the forest biomass produced during logging operations stayed on the landscape,” Goldmark said. “So this study demonstrates there is ample supply of forest biomass to support expansion of Washington’s bioenergy sector…it is a key link to ensure [the state’s] bioenergy sector is based on sound science and sustainability principles.”

The study also projects future biomass production as a result of forest operations for 2010, 2020 and 2030. The database will be able to be summarized by forest type, ownership and forest management across different landscapes in Washington using a calculator tool that will be released later in 2012.

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7 Responses

  1. Tom Davis



    The Health hazards from utilizing biomass as a fuel in the production of electricity has been documented by the American Lung Association, the American Heart Association and the World Health Organization, among others. Despite these credible medical findings, the biomass industry continues to pressure our legislators to promote this unhealthy process. It should be noted that much of Europe has awakened to the dangers of biomass, with some countries switching to more eco and health friendly methods of power generation. So the rhetorical question begs: Why do so many in our state insist on pursuing prehistoric technologies? Because it’s cheaper and easier than innovation. But slice it as you will, third world thinking will always get you third world results.

  2. Radio Randy



    I would prefer "biomass" to be converted to pellet fuel for the many individual heating solutions (pellet stoves, etc), rather than energy generation. Regardless of the "lung problems" being speculated upon (which can be handled with proper filtration), pellet fuel leaves a zero (0) carbon footprint and burns with extremely high efficiency. Additionally, some of the very health organizations that are opposed to this technology are the same ones that back the "global warming" myth. That should be a big clue. Lastly, I am strongly opposed to biomass being used to create "jet fuel". This use is restricted to such a small percentage of this country's population that it was ridiculous to even come up with it.

  3. Tom Davis



    Though worthy of discussion, addressing the “global warming myth” falls outside the topic at hand. But filtration of micron particulate matter at 2.5 and smaller is an impossibility under current BACT (best available control technology), and these are the particles that do the most damage to lung and heart tissue. Even the body’s natural defense systems cannot filter them from being directly introduced into the lungs, and on this this issue there is a mountain of medical evidence. That said, with the exception of these two points, I would agree with Radio Randy’s assessment of using biomass as a fuel for energy production or to make jet fuel.

  4. Barnabas Path



    I would agree with two points: (1) Medical effects of biomass combustion exhaust must be thoroughly vetted, and (2) An accurate inventory of biomass availability by region is an absolute necessity. That said, I'm not certain I would agree with your filtration assertion. I just Googled 2 separate products that document 98% effectiveness at 5 microns. That said, industry insiders seem to be getting the upper hand in running an end-around from the same emission rules that coal-producers have fought so hard against. Finally, the energy content and availability of real bio-mass gives me pause. An article I just read claimed that it takes 13,000 tons of biomass to produce 1 MW, which is incorrect. I estimate that 1 ton of biomass produces between 3.8 MW to 5.0 MW. Thus a plant operating 8,000 hrs/yr would produce 30.4 million KWH, enough to power 2-3 high-rise offices.

  5. Tom Davis



    As has been stated, it is the smallest particulate matter, 2.5 microns or less, that cannot be filtered out under Best Available Control Technology (BACT) standards. And it is these smaller particles that cause the most harm to human health. As to the thermal efficiency of biomass, there are as many claims as variables to influence them; and any accurate estimates need also consider the energy expended to harvest and transport biomass fuel to the plant site. And then, of course, there are environmental concerns. But these tend to fall under philosophical or ideological preferences, so forget I even brought it up.

  6. poetom



    Mr. Davis, what "more eco and health-friendly methods of power generation" are you referring to? Nukes? Fossil fuel plants? Wind and Solar? Biomass, in the form of non-commercial wood and other clean combustible material like waste paper and cardboard is indeed pre-historic fuel, as you say, as in time-tested. Humans have been effectively converting biomass to heat for millennia. Why is it no longer politically correct? My real question is what are the alternatives? Given that demand is increasingly exceeding affordable supply in terms of conventional (fossil fueled) energy, what else are we to do? I live in Alaska, where the options are coal, oil (diesel), or wood for heat. Solar is very seasonal, wind is marginal except on the coast and we have no nukes. Hydro works well where it has been developed, but it is seasonal as well (ice does not flow well through turbines). All energy conversion or production has costs. It is easy to complain about the non-perfection of any solution, but what is your suggestion for alternatives?

  7. Tom Davis



    All good questions, Poetom, and I thank you for asking them. To be clear, I certainly have no objection to the use of certified wood and pellet stoves for heating a private residence because: 1) Unlike industrial power generating plants that use biomass for fuel, residential stoves do not run 7/24/365. 2) The use of wood stoves can be curtailed during times of air inversions that necessitate a stage 1 or 2 burn ban (also: it is likely more burn bans will be issued in communities that host a biomass fueled plant.) 3) The use of a residential wood stove saves the user money, while the industrial use of biomass as a fuel to generate electricity provides profits to an industry at the expense of public health. There’s more, much more, but let’s get to the real meat of your question, which deserves complete honesty. I don’t have a definitive answer to our energy crisis. If I did I wouldn’t be wasting my time on this blog. But here’s what I do know: There is no one answer, and biomass will not change that. All it will do is add more health and environmental issues to the ones we already have. Currently, technologies surrounding hydro, geothermal, tidal, wind, solar, along with conservation efforts, are our best bets. If we want short term solutions with long term negative consequences, then, by all means, let the biomass train roll. But if we want a truly sustainable, carbon neutral solution to our energy needs we need to stop screwing around with repackaging wood fire to look like the technology of the future. And that is not possible if our heads are stuck in the past. Admittedly, the transition to truly sustainable energy will be long and painful because it depends on changing, not only the way we live, but the way we think. But the sooner we start focusing our money, brains and energies on the technologies of the future, the sooner we will have a future. Now here’s the rub: All the lofty words in world will not put gas in your car or keep your lights on, but you already knew that. So here’s my question to you: Do you care enough about future generations to bite the energy bullet today, or do we start burning the furniture?


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