By Vernita Ediger, Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council and the Central Oregon Forest Stewardship Foundation
A wide range of technologies and approaches exist for creating value from small-diameter woody material. Each of these has pros and cons that make them more or less viable in certain locations and contexts. Panel 3 explored three different approaches and technologies to utilize biomass, and asked the questions: How does one decide which approach to utilizing biomass makes the most sense? What enabling conditions support success in a particular location?
Western Juniper Utilization
Historic and current-day landscape photos highlight the extent of juniper proliferation and expansion across much of Central and Eastern Oregon. According to Dylan Kruse (Sustainable Northwest), western juniper (Juniperus occidentalis) has expanded far beyond its historic range, displacing native shrubs and grasses and creating myriad ecological imbalances. While the impact on forage and water availability is significant, juniper’s proliferation has also created an opportunity to link current rangeland restoration efforts with a market for juniper.
The Western Juniper Alliance (WJA) (formerly the Western Juniper Utilization Group) was created to do just that, and seeks to transform the ecological challenge of juniper expansion into an economic opportunity by creating markets for the invasive western juniper and shoring up the supply chain. WJA is involved through the entire process from juniper felling and decking, hauling, and milling, all the way through to developing commercial products such as decking and siding, and utilizing juniper in landscaping and home interiors. The hope is that by 2020 the western juniper industry will have a self-sustaining supply. At the same time, this market opportunity will accelerate the pace and scale of rangeland restoration as more commercially viable juniper is captured by the market.
Dylan highlighted that the economic margin on juniper markets is very small. Thus, in order to be profitable, the WJA relies on rangeland owners viewing the removal of juniper as a service rather than an opportunity to make money themselves. Essentially, the rangeland owner benefits by having juniper removed from a property and the entrepreneur benefits from access to a supply of juniper. The entrepreneur isn’t charged for the wood, but is allowed to cut, deck, haul, mill, and market it to make a profit. In return, juniper is removed from rangeland, increasing forage production and water retention.
Other biomass utilization efforts require more up-front investments in infrastructure. Matt Krumenauer of Oregon Torrefaction described the thermo-chemical process by which biomass is subjected to intense heat (200-300 degrees C) in a low oxygen environment and converted from woody material into a high-grade, light-weight biofuel that burns cleaner than coal. Because torrefaction facilities are very expensive—with the plant slated for construction in John Day estimated to cost $31 million dollars—they are cost-prohibitive in most circumstances. In fact, Oregon Torrefaction has been successful largely because of funding available from the US Endowment for Forestry and Communities, among other sources.
That said, once sited, it is estimated that the facility slated for construction in John Day, OR will create 13-17 new jobs in Grant County. The total economic impact could be 39 jobs and $6.8 million per year, including plant employment, business purchases, and induced impacts through employee purchases, according to a report from the Oregon Employment Department.
Crook County won’t benefit directly from the torrefaction plant, but forest restoration projects on the Ochoco National Forest may still benefit by shipping biomass over the hill to John Day and thus reducing haul distances for biomass processing.
Rather than burning slash piles after a thinning project, Darren McAvoy of Utah State University Extension suggests cooking the woody debris in one of his mobile pyrolysis or gasification units. Applying high-heat in the absence of oxygen—a process called pyrolysis—creates biochar,
Darren drives his mobile biochar unit into the forest, loads it with biomass “waste” left over from forest restoration projects, and then processes it by cooking in the absence of oxygen. The resulting biochar is a carbon-rich, stable solid. Bio-oil, also produced through this process, can be refined further into higher-value petrochemical products.
Daren’s mobile unit reduces the costs of hauling biomass since the processing facility is transported to the forest rather than the other way around. The raw woody debris is treated in the forest and transformed into a lower weight and lower volume product. The result is that fewer trips out of the woods are required and each trip hauls a higher value product.
In addition to the expensive mobile pyrolysis and gasification units, McAvoy has designed a method of creating biochar in a simple kiln or metal box. Such small-scale production units make biochar scalable. Anyone handy enough to build a simple kiln can get into the business. The current challenge is a need to build market demand and shore up the supply chain.
Cross Laminated Timber
Ethan Martin of WoodWorks focused his presentation on Cross Laminated Timber (CLT), also known as Mass Timber, a building product that can be made from small diameter wood and used in the construction of tall buildings. CLT is made from layers of lumber boards stacked crosswise at 90-degree angles and glued into place. This product design generates incredible strength, as evidenced by its use in an 85 foot high rise in Portland, Oregon.
CLT panels can be used in floors, walls, and roofing. It is cost effective compared to other wood products and can be used in hybrid applications with concrete and steel. Additionally, it can also speed construction times when it is used as a prefabricated building component.
Key themes that emerged in this panel
Like many biomass utilization options, torrefaction requires a hefty up-front investment in infrastructure. Without a subsidy or grant, this kind of biomass project is typically not economically feasible.
Once a plant of this kind is located in Eastern Oregon, it will have an impact on biomass supply, since it is likely to draw biomass from surrounding forests, including the Ochoco National Forest. While this may be beneficial to forest restoration projects on the Ochoco National Forest, it also influences the context in which Crook County biomass entrepreneurs are operating.
Supply chain and market development are foundational to the success of any product, whether it is CLT, biochar, or juniper decking material. CLT is an exciting opportunity for biomass in part because it is developing a niche market within the building and construction industry. Processing facilities are already in place and the Think Wood movement is encouraging CLT as a replacement for steel and concrete. It’s ready to go with a little extra market development. In contrast, the supply chain for Western Juniper is challenged since it requires working with multiple landowners to access commercially viable wood. On top of that there is a need to cut, haul, and deck the wood so it can then be picked up and transported to a mill. Connecting all the links in the supply chain takes thoughtful planning. The lack of a solid market for biochar is one of its current weaknesses. Although a supply of woody debris is ready-to-hand, a steady market for this soil additive has yet to be developed, making it a less viable option at present. In each of these examples, the supply chain and market demand impact the associated economic opportunity for the product.
This panel highlights that there are many emerging technologies for capturing value from biomass. Identifying which ones offer the best opportunities for Crook County requires a thoughtful analysis of availability and consistency of supply, sources of market demand, and regional competition.
- Developing niche markets, such as the CLT market, offers an opportunity to leverage existing market demand. Rather than developing a new market, the opportunity is to carve out a niche within an existing market and take advantage of the existing demand.
- Product profitability hinges not only on supply but also on a consistent market demand for that product—so shoring up the supply chain and increasing market demand is important for long-term success.
- Many biomass utilization technologies require a significant up-front investment in infrastructure. Entrepreneurs should explore available programs such as those offered by the US Endowment for Forestry and Communities to support infrastructure development.
- Regional context matters. Once a biomass utilization facility is located in a particular area, market forces in that region shift as a result of competition for regionally available supply. How can Crook County best take advantage of the proximity of the John Day torrefaction plant?
How does this apply to Crook County?
- If Crook County is interested in capitalizing on western juniper utilization, what groundwork can be done to support the WJA? Is there a local organization that can identify and map local assets and to assist with supply chain development? Who can support engagement from local land owners?
- Once the torrefaction plant is built in John Day, how might Crook County benefit from the opportunity to ship biomass to Grant County? How/does this opportunity affect the viability of biomass projects in Crook County?
- Are there opportunities for small-scale biochar production in Crook County? How do we best support entrepreneurs to take advantage of this option? Who are the potential purchasers?
Possible Next Steps
- Support the WJA’s efforts to strengthen the juniper supply chain, including mapping assets such as juniper loggers, hauling equipment, and locations for juniper landing sites.
- Showcase biochar as an option by hosting a demonstration event with small-scale kilns or metal boxes.
- Ensure that future economic analyses and feasibility studies of biomass utilization in Crook County take the John Day torrefaction plan into account.
- Explore regional CLT markets as possible purchasers of biomass from the Ochoco National Forest.
Dylan, what is the volume of juniper processed by Sustainable Northwest?
Dylan: We’ve moved half a million board feet of finished juniper product, which is 1/3 of the total industry. With existing capacity, we can triple that.
Torrefied wood compared to coal: which is hotter and longer lasting, and what are the associated costs?
Matt: Regarding cost, coal delivered into Oregon is about $30 – 35$ a ton. Then you add in another $30 for transportation costs. Coal is very inexpensive, and you just can’t compete with that price. What we can compete with coal on is the quality. Torrefied wood is a cleaner fuel, and has much lower moisture content than coal.
Darren, can Central Oregon farmers use biochar to increase water retention? Is this economically feasible?
Darren: The economic benefit of biochar depends on how cheap you are getting it, and Idaho has the lowest price. But, biochar is easy to make and you can create it in your own backyard. We saw an increase in yield in tomatoes and melons using biochar, and our studies focused on water retention.
Darren, at what rate are you putting out biochar?
Darren: 10 tons per acre.
Ethan, what is the durability of your wood buildings and the costs associated with them?
Ethan: The big idea behind mass timber is not competing with light frame. Our competition is steel and concrete, and this is where we come in cost-wise. We are $10-15$ a square foot less expensive than steel, and $25 less expensive than concrete. Cross-laminated/mass timber is structurally sound and very safe. We are going to start building on military bases as our structures are blast proof.
Regarding biochar and torrefaction, what is their cross comparison? What kinds of materials are used for each? What is the time period? Are there conditions where one is more appropriate than another?
Darren: Biochar is blackened, and torrefaction is browned. From my perspective, biochar is more of a soil and mineral product. Torrefaction is an energy product.
Matt: If someone wants to buy 100,000 tons of biochar, we would be happy to produce that instead of torrefied material, as we just want to help support forest restoration.
Dylan, in terms of logging juniper, is it hand logged? How much are you paying for juniper logs?
Dylan: Our product is being hand worked with chainsaws. Regarding costs, we offer a service to remove these logs at no cost to the landowner. Landowners don’t have to go through the extra steps to haul it the material and burn it, and these are where the savings come in. We pay 55 dollars a green ton to deliver it to the mill, about $1,500 a truck load.