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Wood energy gives back to forests

by Anya Litvak, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette  --There is a group of people in Pennsylvania, and similar groups across the country, that believes a good way to prevent forest fires is to burn wood — close to, but outside of, the forest.


When forests aren’t properly managed — and funding for such maintenance efforts is as tight as it’s ever been in Pennsylvania — dead trees and plants line the ground emitting methane as they decompose and providing tinder for brush fires.

The dead material has value. Or at least it should, argue members of Pennsylvania’s Wood Energy Team, a new, federally-funded effort to boost the market for wood energy.

Ed Johnstonbaugh, renewable energy educator at Penn State Extension–Westmoreland and one of the organizers of the Wood Energy Team, has set as his goal to elevate wood’s profile to the rank of natural gas, coal and fuel oil. So, if you’re a school or a hospital and you’re in the market for a new boilers, wood should have a place at the table.

“It is a tough sell right now because of natural gas,” he said. “But you still don’t have natural gas available everywhere across the state.”

Gas and oil are cheap now but they go up and down, sometimes quite dramatically, Mr. Johnstonbaugh said.

“History has shown that wood is by far the more stable resource pricewise.”

Developing a market
It hasn’t been easy to substantiate that claim.

There’s no spot market for wood, as there is for gas, oil, coal and electricity. Mr. Johnstonbaugh’s data comes from Penn State researchers who mapped the last 20 years of firewood prices by looking at ads in a local newspaper. They concluded that while the price of wood has doubled during that time, it has remained more stable than the other fuels and consistently less expensive.

But it’s unclear how that corresponds to bulk wood for commercial applications, the researchers said.  

That’s another goal that Mr. Johnstonbaugh has set for the program: a transparent spot market.

The state Wood Energy Team kicks off this week with a three-year budget of $250,000 to educate potential wood boiler customers, connect market participants and raise awareness about the link between forest health and energy.

If Mark Kauffman’s experience can serve as a road map, the Pennsylvania team’s greatest challenge will be challenging preconceived notions about wood heat.

Mr. Kauffman, a biomass resource specialist at the Oregon Department of Forestry, organized the first wood energy team in a pilot that started four years ago.

“In general, people see wood combustion as dirty and producing smoke,” he said. “The technology for biomass boilers is misunderstood. Most folks don’t realize how efficient these things are.”

Like Pennsylvania, Oregon was granted $250,000 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with much of it going to businesses for feasibility studies on either using wood as a fuel or founding a company in the supply chain.

Team members also serve as public advocates and experts at community meetings and in situations where a wood energy project’s permit is under fire from opposition.

In some ways, it’s been difficult to measure success, Mr. Kauffman said. “Some of the work we do is not quantifiable — changing hearts and minds.”

But what metrics are available are encouraging, he said. The state has 20 wood boiler installations now.

“They work. They’re doing what they’re supposed to. Project developers that go to the bank, they use those (case studies). It’s no longer new and novel.”

Plus, “There’s commercial lending in almost all of these projects now,” Mr. Kauffman said.

A hard sell
Pennsylvania’s 2.7 million acres of forest cover more than half of the state. The Wood Energy Team estimates there are 8 million tons of wood available for fuel each year, with the potential for more through increased forest management.

A lot has changed since AFS Energy Systems, a Harrisburg-based manufacturer of wood boilers, got into the business 30 years ago.

When the company first started, most of its clients were in the wood industry — mills that would heat their factories with discarded wood waste.

“The paper industry was huge in the Northeast years ago,” said Paul Lewandowski, AFS’s sales director and a board member at the Pennsylvania Biomass Energy Association. “When most of the paper mills closed down, there was literally millions of tons of wood chips being used to make paper which is now available for biomass.”

AFS shifted its focus to commercial clients, such as hospitals, schools, businesses. With that shift came the automation of a lot of its equipment. Whereas in mills laborers could chip wood and feed it into a boiler, tossing in more fuel when the flame faded and scraping away the ashes, schools and hospitals need a boiler than can feed itself.

Wood boilers tend to be priced similarly to gas boilers, but the associated handling equipment and custom manufacturing makes the whole system more expensive and somewhat more labor intensive than hooking a boiler up to a gas pipe.

That and the lack of awareness about wood burning means that usually, if a company commits to burning wood it’s because someone within that company strongly championed the effort, did the research, visited other wood burning sites and sold the decision makers on the virtues, Mr. Lewandowski said.

“The sales pitch is really even a little bit more difficult right now,” he said. “We’ve had a number of folks that seemed ready to pull the trigger when fuel oil was $3.50 a gallon.” Now, at around $2, switching to wood doesn’t have the same urgency.

For all the talk about sustainability and renewable energy, “It’s the dollars and cents that drive people to make the decision,” he said.

(reposted from The Pittsburgh Gazette)

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