August 31, 2009

Report finds wood-to-energy a green fuel option

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Photo by Natasha Walker

Photo by Natasha Walker

A study released by the University of Washington’s College of Forest Resources found that woody debris could provide a sustainable source of liquid fuel for growing energy demands.

At the request of the Washington Legislature, university scientists looked into how wood-to-energy might play a role in the state’s fuel consumption future. They found plant biomass to be the only renewable resource available in the state for conversion to biofuels, and  touted woody debris in particular as the state’s best chance for green fuel. It accounts for two-thirds of the state’s available biomass.

Utilizing woody debris, they contend, would reduce greenhouse gases not only by offsetting the use of carbon-emitting fuel sources, but also by thinning and making use of overly dense forests, thereby minimizing the carbon dioxide put off by potential wildfires. This may change the way the U.S. Forest Service handles its woody debris, considering that in the past the agency has resorted to burning thinned trees because they don’t sell well.

The report finds that besides the 11 million tons of dry forest biomass available annually, additional woody debris from pulp and paper mills can be recovered. The report even suggests that biorefineries, for converting the plant matter to biofuels, be placed near these establishments to maximize debris reclamation and decrease transportation costs. The report says:

Co-location with existing facilities will bring reduced capital costs, access to needed infrastructure, synergies for integrated raw materials and product streams, and an engaged corps of highly skilled engineers and union workers.

In April, Washington took the first steps toward incorporating woody biomass into its renewable energy initiatives. But while utilizing the fibrous material seems like a win-win proposition, the report cautions that many steps are necessary to ensure the process is both effective and sustainable — starting with increasing public interest in biofuels.

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