Biomass: Some Hype, Some Hope

Usually when the topic of biomass comes up in our various discussions around the Park, everyone is gung ho and nod their heads positively.  Biomass is an important component of the ADK Futures strategy for both lowering our carbon footprint and keeping employment in the forestry sector.  It is also an important component of the North Country Regional Economic Development Strategy.  The Northern Forest Center also has made biomass heating a focus of new market development.  We are told that there is a lot of interest in biomass as a renewable, low net carbon contribution fuel source at the State and Federal level.

So, how big is this new market and how does that compare to our forest’s production?  There are a few researchers who have been looking at the numbers and one we have recently talked with is Dr. Charlie Canham, who is a Senior Scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, NY.  Charlie’s detailed work looks at like available supply and at the efficiency with which various kinds of wood supply can be converted to energy of various types. He looks are the entire Northern Forest; State level detail is the best available.  Charlie concludes that, regionally,  only very modest portions, in the 5% range, of most energy markets could be met through biomass fuels, but there are a few that could be more significant. One that is promising is using biomass for heating.  Specifically, base load heating for larger buildings like schools, government offices, prisons, etc.

Because pulpwood prices are so low, and our available wood supply is not sufficient to substitute a lot of fossil fuel, Charlie worries that a real boom in biomass might lead to unsustainable harvesting of forests and that would negate much of the carbon emission benefit of the fuel.  The image of trains loaded with pellets leaving the region come to mind, but it is never going to happen.  Pipeline natural gas will keep the use of biomass contained to areas like the Park with plenty of wood and no gas pipelines.  Also, there are other government estimates that are higher than Charlie’s. So we’re not currently worried about over using our working forest.

The proposed use of biomass in the ADK Futures strategy is actually pretty limited.  We propose to focus on converting from fuel oil to biomass heating systems in the Park using the modern gasifier furnaces that emit little in the way of smoke and pollutants.  We propose to meet the heating needs of the 130,000 people and large buildings within the Blue Line.  Most of the Park is never going to get gas lines, and this makes it a good market for locally sourced biomass as a heating fuel.  The idea that train loads of pellets with head from the region to replace coal in power plants is never going to happen, but biomass will be a great low cost local heating fuel for Park residents.

Using biomass for electrical power production in co-gen facilities is a good thing, but it isn’t likely to do well in plants just generating electricity and dumping the heat – it is too inefficient to compete with hydro power capability in our region.  The ReEnergy project at Ft. Drum is a large 60 Megwatt power plant.  It was built as a coal fired co-gen plant but the steam distribution part of the system failed and has been abandoned.  It will burn wood, including whole tree chips, wood waste from sawmills, crop fuels like willow, and other material like shredded tires. It will probably be a one-of-a-kind facility in the region, although the company has a dozen plants burning various fuels elsewhere.

The other point that Charlie and we agree on is that it is reasonable, over the next 25 years, to expect one or both of the two remaining pulp mills in the region will close.  Their closure won’t be for lack of wood, but for the decline in printing paper markets.  We will need new pulpwood markets just to keep the current logging industry in business.  Luckily biomass heating using pellets requires the same pulpwood now going to our two pulp mills (Ticonderoga and Glens Falls).   We need these markets to buy our low value trees, leaving higher value trees to grow into saw logs for later harvests. Think of these markets as providing funding for weeding our forests periodically.

The best feed stock for biomass heating is pellets produced from pulpwood, not debris from logging operations.  There is an argument that it is best to leave logging debris on the forest floor as the carbon is better sequestered that way and the material decays to provide nutrients for the next generation of trees. It is ugly, but most forest operations are ugly. Removing the entire above ground biomass of a forest may look better, but is not as healthy for the forest.  Finally, logging waste makes lousy dirty fuel and it is expensive to collect.

If the pulp mills close, we can imagine the possibility of re-purposing a pulp mill to synfuel production, similar to ethanol from corn, but that is a long way off.  So, it feels like expanding biomass heating in the Park now is a good way to get us on the path to continued productive use of our working forests in renewable, low carbon energy markets of the future.

There is going to be temptation for many land owners along the way to deviate from sustainable harvesting practices.  Some may be unwise enough to let saw logs get diverted into energy.  The industry, DEC and NYSERDA need to think now about the kinds of monitoring programs that will need to be in place to warn us that we are loosing the carbon emission advantage that we set out to achieve with these conversions.  We also have to win the war against invasive pests that could seriously destroy significant portions of our working forest.

For more info specifically about biomass in the Park, we recommend Jerry Jenkins book, Climate Change in the Adirondacks, The Path to Sustainability, pages 122-125.  Reading this section will answer a lot of questions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s