April 29, 2007

In-Woods Expo 2007 Harvests Energy

If the In-Woods Expo at Hot Springs, Arkansas this past week is any indication, we are about to see North American forests take center stage leading to a re-emergence of forest industries as a major energizer for our economic future. It's a future that can retain and inspire new generations of Americans to pursue careers in our great forestlands servicing emerging bioenergy businesses. For this to happen, forest industries and forest owners will need new profit streams that will enable them to utilize more biomass, invest in new equipment, and maintain their vested assets.

Will America's youth return to the forests?
To a huge extent Americans have lost their connection to their forest heritage. Originally urbanites organized to express concern for the protection of forests as a hedge against overdevelopment of the suburbs. But as light has given way to the heat of their extrapolated arguments and overly aggressive preservation campaigns, the livelihood and lifestyles of rural families and communities who work on private forestlands and in forestry industries have been compromised. Those who are in a position to influence policymaking and certification often don't live or work in these communities.

In a recent article in Timber Harvesting magazine, Tom Thompson who represented Family Forest Landowners on the Sustainable Forest Resource Committee expressed it this way:

"A significant number of board members of any forest certification program should be true stakeholders of landowners and loggers - the true forest practitioners. If we fail to do this--and we have up to this point--forest certification will fail in the U.S.

According to a recent report from the Society of American Foresters, 25% of private U.S. forestland is now certified.

We forget that "huddled masses" migrated to this immense territory in large measure because of its bountiful natural resources - fertile land and the forests to build, energize, and sustain each family's future. A walk down the Washington Mall is a moving tribute to the American character that has been forged at the base of our forests - surveyor and scout George Washington, "Old Hickory" Andrew Jackson, Jefferson's explorers Lewis & Clark, and, of course, rail-splitter Abraham Lincoln.

Today students of all ages feel an emotional connection to the forests through camping, field trips, recreation, and ecological education. Urban beautification associations, tree farms, paper recycling programs, forest certification, and wildlife preservation organizations seek to re-ignite our interest and shape our focus on how we can contribute to the health of our forests. And they are working.

Unfortunately, student interest in the environment does not lead to seeking employment in the forest industries. Our forests are at greater risk because our forest industries are depressed. Over the past decades, overseas competition and low wages have led to a marked decline in paper and pulp mill employment. Domestic concerns about safety, carbon emissions, pollution, and worker incomes are not weighed factors in the decision to buy from foreign sources. Land values have stagnated as paper mills sell off their acreage. Landowners are losing the capital they need to institute and maintain proper stewardship leading to certification.

Well meaning anti-logging crusades have led to increased forest density (49% higher than in 1953 according to a new Society of American Foresters publication called "The State of America's Forests") which in turn leads to vulnerability to catastrophic fires and the rapid spread of insect infestations. Rising temperatures are drying up forest eco-systems causing pine beetles to proliferate and trees to die. In short, we are slowly converting our timberlands into wildfire tinderboxes - unhealthful to wildlife, certainly, but also risking enormous amounts of greenhouse gases and wasted energy to vent to the skies.

Emerging processes to a new forestry future
New practices need to be developed to mitigate forest fires and greenhouse gas emissions. We can no longer burn the tons of decaying slash (residual woody biomass) that are the unused byproducts of harvesting operations. We can't afford to leave it spread on the forest floor either because, as it decays, it emits carbon to the atmosphere. If it is collected and hauled out at great expense, what can we do with it? How can a depressed industry finance the rising expectations of stewardship certification?

There is growing optimism that demand for bioenergy from forestry residuals will provide us the key to solving these intertwined dilemmas. While forest slash is currently a burden for existing forestry industries, it and forest manufacturing waste could emerge as valuable feedstocks for bioenergy conversion to electricity and biofuels. Perhaps we have found a profit stream that can be developed for helping forest stakeholders secure their investments.

It's all about the kids
Thousands of middle and high school students attended the In-Woods Expo in Hot Springs last week. They saw an impressive array of advanced logging hardware operated by some of the most talented loggers in the nation. Acres were thinned of underbrush, trees were felled, stripped, and collected in a fluid choreography of highly trained operators and powerful machinery. In thirty minutes several trees were felled, stripped of branches and bark, cut to length, and hauled away.

Residual slash was alternately processed by being fed to powerful chippers or new devices called bundlers. One demonstrated bundler was manufactured by John Deere Corporation which has online videos of their products in action:

The 1490D Energy Wood Harvester, or “Bundler”, has a dual advantage – it produces biomass energy and clears the forest floor of slash.

The B380 bundler unit very tightly compresses, wraps and cuts a slash log, which can then be transported and used as biomass fuel. Each log provides about one megawatt hour of energy, equal to the electricity produced by 21 to 28 gallons of oil.

The American will to effect change
Exciting laboratory advances in biomass conversion technologies (including enzymatic hydrolysis, catalysis, gasification, and syngas fermentation) affirm that the technical hurdles are surmountable. New biorefineries that can utilize bundles and chips of residual slash are in the commercial-scale development stage right now. But, like technical advances for the bioconversion of urban waste into bioenergy, the biggest hurdles may be societal ones - the frustratingly slow passage of enabling regulatory reform, permitting procedures, and incentives legislation.

As important as these advances can be, American will and coalition building is on trial. At the heart of the issue is the question of what kind of world will the next generations inherit? Will the forestry regions of North America be given the autonomy to regulate their own culturally-based solutions for effecting the coming renewable energy paradigm shift? Will federal programs provide investment incentives leading to new technological R&D and deployments of bioenergy conversion technologies? What leeway or fast tracking will regulatory agencies grant to remove obstacles to deployment so that developers can begin to tackle the technological challenges that will lead to broader achievement of renewable energy objectives?

It's a national issue with global implications. As the world's strongest industrial power with the fourth largest renewable forestland assets and formidable communications leadership we should be at the forefront of developing and exporting global solutions for renewable energy - using, and sustaining, our assets in woody biomass.

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1 comment:

C. Scott Miller said...

Here is a comment that I received from a leader of 25x'25...

Per the John Deere bundler, its utility compared to in-woods chipping may rest more with the area of the country involved - like the South and other parts of the country where it is easy to get large chip vans in and out of the woods.

In the mountainous West it may be that the bundler is the way to go or, if you chip in the woods, you may need shorter trucks with roll off containers to negotiate the terrain.

I still am intrigued by the idea that is being worked on in Canada - in woods pyrolosis where the wood is converted to a char oil on site and then transported by tankers to an cellulosic ethanol plant. However, with "in woods" pyrolysis there are some by products that will have to be dealt with in the process to prevent site contamination.