What if there was an endless fuel source that came from widely available natural waste products? And what if converting these products to energy supported tens of thousands of rural jobs?
Wood can be just that fuel. In many places, it already is.
The U.S. Forest Service is working to expand renewable wood energy markets by providing technical assistance and grants to public and private sector partners through its Woody Biomass Utilization program. By supporting efforts to reuse the excess wood from forest thinnings, urban tree trimmings, and forest products manufacturing facilities as well as trees killed by fires, insects, disease, and hurricanes, the agency seeks to increase the amount of locally-produced energy while improving forest health and resilience.
After years of aggressive fire suppression, forests throughout the U.S. are overstocked with standing deadwood and small, easily ignitable twigs and ladder fuels that allow wildfires to spread quickly. Converting these fuels to energy helps reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire and fosters healthier forests.
The Forest Service works with government and private landowners and businesses to mitigate wildfire risk by reducing and removing unwanted forest fuels. However, the question of what to do with these fuels inevitably arises.
Wood energy facilities are part of the solution: they convert unwanted forest fuels into energy in an environmentally friendly manner. When bioenergy is burned under controlled conditions, filters remove 95 percent of the polluting emissions that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere.
Vast quantities of wood waste are widely available nationwide, and that’s good news for rural communities.
One success story is that of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, a Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program project spanning 2.4 million acres in Arizona. Government, industry, and private partners are working together to support and develop bioenergy infrastructure and markets, including cogeneration and wood pellets. Last year the Collaborative built a new relationship with the White Mountain Apache Tribe that added 5,000 acres of wood product material to existing industries. One partner, Salt River Project, initiated a test burn of more than 3,900 tons of biomass, integrating this fuel into a plant designed to burn coal.
Renewable wood energy is most cost-effective when generated locally, ideally within 75 miles of the wood’s origin. According to Julie Tucker, Forest Service National Lead for Renewable Wood Energy, facilities using wood for heating, cooling, or electricity are usually located in rural communities, where infrastructure investments and jobs are needed the most.
“A typical biomass power plant has annual expenditures of more than $20 million, which includes over $2 million in state and local taxes,” she said. “Just one of these plants can employ up to 120 workers inside the plant and support another 60 indirect jobs.”