Forest industry’s Ultimate Rorschach Test

Blue Mountain Hospital  in Oregon replaced one of its 1950s crude oil boilers with a wood-pellet boiler -- saving the hospital about $100,000 a year in heating costs. |Photo courtesy of the Oregon Department of Energy, courtesy of DOE.
Blue Mountain Hospital in Oregon replaced one of its 1950s crude oil boilers with a wood-pellet boiler — saving the hospital about $100,000 a year in heating costs. |Photo courtesy of the Oregon Department of Energy, courtesy of DOE.

SP-14: Energy from Trees: Technology, Opportunities, and Challenges


The biomass supply chain is forest industry’s ultimate “Rorschach Test,” according to Nate Anderson (U.S. Forest Service). People see different challenges and opportunities for the bio-economy.

The burgeoning bio-economy requires technological and market development, but also social engagement, public policies, and environmental considerationS. Integrating these perspectives is imperative for efficient and sustainable bioenergy.

Interest in biomass utilization ignited over the past decade. Starting in 2011, the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Energy invested $30 million in grants for bioenergy research and development. The 2010 IUFRO Congress hosted two sessions on bio-energy with 15 speakers. This Congress includes 10 sessions with 77 presenters.

Headlines make biomass seems like the new rage, but Rob Bailis (Yale School of Forestry) reminded us that burning wood for energy is as old as human civilization. Over 2.8 billion people across the world rely on trees for heat, using 1.4 billion tons of wood each year.

Using trees for energy is not new, but technology is creating novel means of production, extraction, and distribution. Exciting advancements include:

  • Woodstoves that require less fuel and emit less smoke,
  • Machines that bundle or chip bulky logging slash,
  • Processors that cut down multiple trees at once, and
  • LiDAR data that can help map out sensitive environments to avoid and priority areas to harvest.

Unfortunately, low prices for woody biomass often discourage research and development. Investments are still needed for cost-effective technology to convert wood into liquid biofuels. Entrepreneurs dream of small units that turn biomass into high-value fuel at forest landings. For now, such dreams remain unfulfilled.

Efficiently processing wood residues can provide a renewable energy source and mitigate climate change. Bailis reported that annual forest growth stores more carbon than is emitted by the burning of fuelwood in developing countries (1.6-1.8 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide stored for 1-1.2 gigatonnes emitted each year). Efficient burning of biomass can reduce emissions even further.

Life cycle analyses help enumerate carbon costs and benefits of biomass. Hans Rudolf Heinimann (ETH Zürich, Switzerland) encourages researchers to consider both above and belowground carbon. Analyses often focus on carbon in stems and branches, but a majority of carbon stock dwells in the soil.

Disturbance to forest soils can release soil carbon. Loss of soil carbon reduces the net benefit of biomass utilization. Biomass extraction poses other risks to the environment, such as:

  • Soil compaction from harvesting operations,
  • Post-harvest erosion, and
  • Removal of nutrients from forest ecosystems.

Uncertainty over environmental impacts reduces public support for biomass extraction and use. Citizens in Sweden are concerned about the extraction of stumps for biomass, but they generally support use of logging slash and small diameter trees. In addition, carbon emissions from transporting wood residue make some people leery about biomass as a renewable energy source.

Companies may need “social license to operate” before they harvest biomass from new areas or intensify production. “Social license to operate” refers to support local communities provide to companies for developing natural resources. Companies can assuage environmental concerns and build social license through accountability, reputation, transparency, and leadership.

Independent accountability boards can monitor companies and governments to verify that they follow through with their promises. They can also provide information to help control public expectations of economic benefits and job growth. Overpromising can led to disappointment and backlash.

The bio-economy presents exciting opportunities and new challenges for forest industry. Charting the path forward requires deliberate and thoughtful action. It requires communication among social scientists, engineers, foresters, economists, entrepreneurs, and community members.

Different impressions of the bioenergy “Rorschach Test” don’t mean we’re crazy. It means we need each other to make sense of a messy and complex world.

Written by: Megan S. Matonis

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