Markets for Bear Biomass

Council School District Biomass Burner Can good come from  the destructive energy of a 2006 tornado? The answer is yes if you live in the community of Bear, located northwest of Council, Idaho.  A June 2006 tornado left a footprint on the landscape of the Council Ranger District one mile wide and thirteen miles long.  The winds damaged homes, and toppled trees on over 5,000 acres of mixed public and private ownership.  The downed trees increased forest fuels, which in turn add to the risk of future fires and the potential for high suppression costs to protect the community and the forest resource.


After the dust settled, District Ranger Mary Farnsworth recognized  that the storm  left in its path an alternative energy source: woody biomass.  Even in the absence of storm damaged land, recent fires have focused attention on the need for fuel reduction treatments.  If a cost effective method to dispose of the Bear biomass could be demonstrated, the results would have application elsewhere on the District and  in the region.  


In 2007, the Council Ranger District offered four timber salvage sales, and a fuel reduction component was added as part of the cleanup.  The contract was described as a demonstration project, or proof of concept, because of several unanswered operational and market questions.  Logging operations have attempted chip conversion in the woods before, but contractors lacked equipment to collect the slash material and then transport it  safely and efficiently over forest roads.  To be cost effective, the haul destination must be in the local area.    To address these issues, the Payette National Forest pooled local and regional talent into a demonstration project on the 2007 timber sales.  The Council Ranger District, the Woody Biomass Utilization Partnership, and the Montana Community Development Corporation hosted field demonstrations of their accomplishments on August 20th and 21st.   The Photo Atlas and Slideshow below describe the field tour of the woody biomass demonstration project.


Photo Atlas Overview of Demonstration

The field tour included several stops that are identified with photos on the map below.  Note that the map is interactive, and can be enlarged by clicking on the words View Larger Map. 

  1. The first tour stop, at the top left (above the community of Bear), is the Bear West Timber sale, one of the four salvage sales.  The forwarder pictured collects slash in the stand and loads it in to a bin. on the rear of the forwarder 
  2. Tour stop 2: continuing to the south, the second stop viewed a stand with a recent commercial thinning.  The equipment configuration on site includes an innovative modification to a log truck design that can transport chips over forest roads.
  3. Tour stop 3: the Council School District biomass burner, located near the Council Ranger District Office.
  4. The photo of the Evergreen Forests sawmill and co-generation plant at Tamarack, not on the tour, was mentioned as a potential customer in this resource supply chain.  The co generation plant has a six megawatt capacity, currently prodding three.


View Larger Map
The sequence of photos in the slideshow traces the demonstration tour stops, starting with the source of the woody biomass at the forest stand and proceeding through the production phases to final delivery of the chips to a biomass burner.
To Market, Two Markets

The field tour demonstrated a configuration of equipment able to convert slash material in the woods.  Craig Thomas, the logging contractor on the Bear West Timber Sale, mobilized the equipment from Darby, Montana.  The Forest Service Technology and Development Center contributed use of the stinger-steered chip trailer (their design).  To make the transition from a demonstration project to operational production,  local contractors would need to have this equipment in their fleet.  A grant from the Research Branch of the Forest Service could be applied to equipment purchase.  Several economic development factors affect a contractor's decision to purchase additional equipment: supply, demand, and price.


Supply:   In addition to the Council Ranger District working on the supply side of the equation, Adams County contains over 70,000 acres of forestland in private ownership.  Three other counties participate in the Woody Biomass Utilization Partnership:  Valley, Gem and Boise.  The combined private forest ownership of the four counties exceeds 225,000 acres.  Add in BLM to the Forest Service ownership, and the market is not supply, but demand constrained.


Demand:  Morris Huffman, Biomass Coordinator for the Woody Biomass Utilization Partnership, works on market development.  The Council School District is an existing  customer, and  proudly reports an annual cost savings of $50,000.  The District consumes a  relatively small volume of 400 tons per year.  The evolving market does offer optimism.  A proposed co-generation plant in Ontario, Oregon would increase demand by 140,000 tons per year.  A pellet mill proposed at Payette, Idaho would also add to the market.  Huffman speculates that within five years a cellulosic ethanol plant in the area could produce up to five million gallons annually, another biomass energy product.


Price:   Success in woody biomass market development will require pricing that breaks with forest product tradition in the region, and subsequently creates two markets for the raw material.  Log procurement for traditional wood conversion facilities values the tree from base to top, in descending order of value: large sawlog is king, small sawlog is the queen, and the pulp log is the ace in the hole to recover  value from log defect.  Tops are treated as waste and burned in the stand to reduce the fuel hazard.


Craig Thomas predicts that the so-called waste material will be the court jester  because high fossil fuel costs are creating market demands for the energy content of wood.  As a consequence of this transition to a second wood market,  buyers will likely begin their biomass purchases with the  slash material, and eventually chip their way towards other parts of the bole of the  tree - first the pulp log and subsequently competing with sawmills for the small sawlog.  The energy value of the wood (BTU's or British thermal units) could  overshadow the value for small dimension lumber.

Communities on the Edge

Market development and market changes take time.  In the interim, demonstration projects lay the groundwork to design and test the infrastructure needed to support an emerging biomass market.   The tour demonstrated not only the technical feasibility of logging equipment to participate in that infrastructure, but also a creative group of collaborators  working towards the long term objective.  


The logging production economics are an important consideration to determine feasibility.  A map hanging on the Council Ranger District conference room wall reinforced the importance of a broader economic analysis.  The map shaded forest fires by year of occurrence.  Suppression costs in Idaho topped $125 million in 2007 alone, much of that money spent protecting private structures adjacent to public land.  Public investment in market development of biomass could have a large public return through the decrease in suppression costs over time.  If the energy values are recognized in the marketplace, as Craig Thomas expects, the revenue to private landowners may even bring a resurgence in long-term private forest management.   Perhaps when driving Highway 95 or the road to Bear, and a roadside sign says Development Potential,  you will need to stop and ask the landowner if he means real estate or biomass!