Turning wasted forest residues into valuable, environmentally-friendly products offers a number of economic and environmental benefits for the U.S.
Reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil
This project will develop innovative methods and strategies for replacing fossil fuel usage in the U.S. The use of under-utilized forest residues for the production of bioenergy and bio-based products will have significant positive effects on the environment through the displacement of fossil fuels and reduction of associated greenhouse gasses. For example, one bone dry ton of hog fuel from biomass recovery operations on commercial timber lands in northern California contains the energy equivalent of 80 gallons of crude oil or a ½ ton of coal. If forest residue utilization increases to utilize the 41 million tons that is available annually, it could potentially displace the use of 3.2 billion gallons of oil or 20 million tons of coal. Biochar, the one non-energy, bio-based product included in this project, has a market value of $100–$2,000 per ton.
Reduce costs of restoration and management on our forests
Previously wasted or under-utilized forest residues can be used to produce bioenergy and bio-based forest products, thereby helping offset the high costs of forest restoration and fire hazard treatments while facilitating follow-up forest management activities.
On commercial timberlands in the western U.S., the inclusion of biomass conversion technologies (BCTs) into forest operations will result in significant cost reductions in site preparation activities following commercial timber harvests. Currently, the costs associated with open burning of forest residues after a clear-cut on Green Diamond Resource Company property range from $250/acre to $300/acre. In addition, open burning of forest residues on-site are known to be problematic for re-stocking purposes because fire prone species such as tanoak, ceanothus, and manzanita are known to accelerate their growth through re-sprouting after burning. This causes severe competition with conifer seedlings and often leads to herbicide applications to ensure regeneration success. Herbicide applications can range from $100/acre to $500/acre, depending on the density of fire prone species. The incorporation of BCTs will increase forest residue recovery operations and subsequently reduce the need for herbicide applications and prescribed fire. The total cost savings to site preparation activities will range from $350/acre to $800/acre, with consequent reductions in air emissions and chemical application.
The research team will conduct an economic analysis of the avoided costs and analysis of improved environmental benefits associated with the expected outcomes of this study, such as reduction of uncontrolled wildland fires, reduced air pollution and reduced water pollution associated with reduced fertilizer and herbicide runoff. The research efforts of this project will result in reduced wildfire hazard in forested areas across the western U.S. This will result in improved economic benefits in terms of wildfire suppression costs. In addition, public safety will be improved due to decreased wildfire threats in urban and rural areas. Further, the research efforts will result in improved air and water quality through wildfire hazard reduction, benefiting rural areas.
Promote economic development in rural, forest-dependent communities in the western U.S.
Increases in forest residue harvesting activities on private, state, tribal, and federal forests can reasonably be expected to result in direct economic benefits for rural communities. Forest residue harvesting for the production of bioenergy and bio-based products will likely follow similar patterns as timber harvesting job creation. For example, a study estimated direct forest industry employment in Washington and Oregon at 13.2 workers per million board feet of annual timber harvest in 2002. Another study suggests that the number of direct jobs in Idaho may fluctuate from 9 to 11 workers per million board feet of timber harvest per year. In addition to direct forest industry employment, there are many more indirect jobs that will be created to provide benefits throughout the western U.S. A study estimated that for every direct industry job per million board feet of timber harvest per year, an additional 4.2 indirect jobs were created. Additional job creation will occur at bioenergy facilities utilizing forest residues for energy generation. A study by McNeil Technologies estimated that for every megawatt of electricity generated from biomass combustion, six jobs would be created at the energy facility. Further job creation can be expected from additional technicians needed to operate biomass conversion technologies in the field.
The additional income and tax revenues from increased employment associated with the results of the proposed research efforts will create positive rural economic development and sustainability benefits. Throughout the U.S., industries linked with renewable energy development have been experiencing higher than above average growth in recent years. Activities associated with forest residue recovery and utilization including biomass conversion technologies will benefit community stakeholders and self-sufficiency by supporting rural economic growth. Current timber management practices and fuel reduction thinning treatments generate forest residue materials that are not currently utilized, and the expected outcomes from this study will facilitate the utilization of those materials and provide an additional economic base for rural self-sufficiency and enhanced sustainability.
Improve the environment
In addition to petroleum displacement benefits, this project will improve transportation efficiency through the use of biomass conversion technologies (BCTs) in the field. Currently, the transportation efficiency of comminuted forest residues is hindered by the high moisture contents of material. A study carried out by Han-Sup Han of Humboldt State University showed that transporting comminuted forest residues at 30% moisture content versus 50% moisture content reduced global warming potential impacts by 8 kg CO2 equivalent per bone dry metric ton for a 50-mile one-way hauling distance. This reduction will increase with increased hauling distance. With the integration of BCTs in forest residue recovery operations, densified, low (or zero) moisture content feedstocks will be effective at reducing emissions associated with biomass transportation.
Other significant environmental benefits include the reduction of greenhouse gas and particulate emissions associated with forest residue removal and open burning. Compared to open burning, one study showed that the bioenergy alternative can reduce CO2 emissions by 40%, methane emissions by 97%, and PM10 particulate emissions by 89%. Depending on feedstock supply transportation times, there were 21-26 units of bioenergy produced for each unit of fossil fuel used in the operational processes in the same study. The fossil fuel energy saved by using bioenergy averaged 14.9 gigajoules per ton of forest residues.
The integration of biochar production associated with fuel reduction thinning treatments has the potential to significantly benefit soil quality. Forest residues from thinning treatment can be converted to biochar and redistributed on-site. This will increase nutrient availability, nutrient retention, and water retention in the soil. In addition, the carbon sequestered in forest residues will be locked in biochar for centuries, effectively reducing the possibility of the releasing the carbon to the atmosphere through open burning. Although the potential of carbon management in forest soils is large, much of the soil carbon will eventually be lost via decomposition; hence it is necessary to find effective long-term methods for carbon sequestration. Renewable biomass sources can be converted into fuels and associated byproducts resulting in a reduction in the use of fossil fuels. For this reason and the alteration of site quality and increasing the amount of sequestered carbon, new processes for converting renewable biomass into energy are needed. The biological potential of U.S. forestlands exceeds 25 billion cubic feet/year and logging of this material generates a considerable amount of residues, which to date, have not been fully utilized for bioenergy or bio-based product production. While no single conversion technology can be used everywhere, the development of multiple avenues for biomass conversion is essential for healthy forests and rural economic sustainability.