By Janel Ruehl, Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council
What’s the right size biomass utilization project for your community? How do you assess the supply available in your region, and the viability of a variety of potential sources? In panel two of the OFRC Biomass Summit, our panelists focused on the opportunities and challenges of securing a consistent and adequate supply of small diameter wood for biomass utilization and the top considerations when determining project scale.
The US Forest Service is often the first and primary source of supply to assess when considering a biomass project. Kevin Keown, Natural Resources and Planning Staff Officer for the Ochoco National Forest and Crooked River Grassland, presented an overview of supply currently available from regional forest service lands, a snapshot of potential future supply, and highlighted some of the current challenges and opportunities in tapping into this supply. As Kevin explained, Regional Foresters are assigned two “flagship” targets each fiscal year: volume of timber sold and acres of hazardous fuels treated. In his jurisdiction, the 2018 timber volume target was set at 30,917 CCF. As of October, the USFS has already exceeded this target, with 33,387 CCF accomplished. Likewise, USFS has surpassed its 2018 target for acres of hazardous fuels treated (target of 9,500 acres, 22,174 treated). To accomplish this, Kevin and his colleagues used a variety of methods including prescribed burning, commercial and non-commercial thinning, piling, and pile burning. While there are a number of projects still outstanding in the region, many face significant challenges to implementation. Viable timber sales are limited by low
The desire for viable juniper utilization is a common refrain in Central Oregon. Juniper in Oregon has exploded due to European expansion and fire suppression activities since the 1880s. Areas classified as juniper forests have increased from 420,000 acres to over 3 million today! In addition to highlighting these startling statistics, Tim Deboodt, OSU Extension Professor Emeritus and current Crook County Natural Resources Coordinator, shed some light on the potential benefits of incorporating juniper biomass into a regional utilization project. Tim discussed the economic opportunities of watershed enhancements and forest fuel reduction, machinery involved with these types of projects, and the variety of forest products that can be created from juniper biomass. Accessing this supply source requires coordination between public and private landowners and can be more labor-intensive than other species, making it harder to balance economic viability with adequate supply. However, Tim’s presentation made it clear that utilizing juniper biomass can yield huge benefits for forest and rangeland health in Central Oregon.
To better understand potential supply on private lands, we asked Brian Reel, Stewardship Forester at Oregon Department of Forestry, to give an overview of current conditions. Brian again touched on the proliferation of Juniper, noting that historically in Crook County there were only 5-15 trees per acre, while today’s levels vary widely from 150-1,000. This is a great potential source of biomass in Crook County, but private landowners are finding it hard to fund the work of removal and disposal. According to Brian, hauling costs are currently the biggest barrier for landowners. Where landowners elect to remove juniper, most chose to burn it onsite to avoid high hauling costs. ODF issued burn permits for 2,500 acres in 2018. Using BLM estimates, this would account for 40,000 tons of material removed! This hints at just a fraction of the private supply that might be available if a viable market was established.
When it comes time for project implementation, supply is just one of four important factors to consider when determining the right scale for your community. Meagan Nuss, Project Development Manager at Wisewood Energy, shared insights garnered from years of project development and her graduate research at OSU. She discussed appropriately-scaled biomass activities, the different tensions of scale, and different biomass energy technologies. In addition to supply, she calls out social acceptance, economic viability, and existing forest sector supply chains as top factors in determining the appropriate scale of a new project. Using examples from a number of projects she helped develop throughout the western United States, Meagan discussed the process that project leaders have followed to determine the most appropriate scale for their community, an improve community buy-in. Local examples included
As we consider the possibilities for biomass utilization projects in Crook County, available supply is one of the most important factors to determine both viability and scale, but not the only factor. Working with the Forest Service, Department of Forestry, and Bureau of Land management to compile more detailed supply estimates for the next five to ten years could help attract potential entrepreneurs or investors, while community conversations about social acceptance in relation to scale may help determine what type of project Crook County chooses to endorse.
- There is significant biomass supply in Central Oregon, but some barriers exist. To access this supply, we must address transportation costs, navigate harvest limitations, and develop new local infrastructure.
- Collaboration and coordination between various supply chains (federal, state, and privately held lands) is vital to create a consistently adequate volume of supply.
- Juniper is a huge potential supply source and juniper biomass utilization offers tremendous benefits for forest and rangeland restoration. However, market development is critical to making juniper restoration cost effective.
- The four factors that will determine the right size utilization project for Crook County (or any community) are: available supply, social acceptance, financing options, and adequate forest sector supply chains.
- Project champions and local entrepreneurs are vital to project success, at any scale.
How does this apply to Crook County?
Key questions for those interested in developing a biomass utilization project in Crook County, from Meagan Nuss of Wisewood Energy:
- What is the scale of your local underutilized wood source? What type of wood fuel is consistently available?
- What scale of utilization is acceptable to key stakeholders?
- Where are your largest heat loads? Do power incentives exist for biomass?
- Where is new construction happening?
- Who are your local entrepreneurs and your project champions?
Possible Next Steps
- Conduct a short-term analysis of currently available NEPA shelf stock.
- Convene a gathering of local stakeholders to discuss acceptable scale.
- Work with City and County planners to determine largest local heat loads and research any available power incentives.
- Identify and support local entrepreneurs interested in biomass utilization.
Meagan, what opportunities make the most sense for Crook County and why?
Megan: We are starting to work with the City of Prineville and see many opportunities. We look for:
- What are the heat loads?
- What are the county’s power incentives?
- Is there any new construction in the area?
- Are entrepreneurs interested?
- What is the current supply?
What is difference between persistent and expanding juniper?
Tim: When I say persistent juniper, I am referring to historical juniper. It is really hard to age juniper because of the twists in the tree, so we usually focus on the tree’s growth forms. Generally trees that are post European expansion are 130 – 160 year old trees. Rounded top trees with moss and lichen are old growth trees, and we always leave those alone.
What is the Forest Service doing to deal with the no bid challenge?
Kevin: There are several cost elements that go into those projects:
- Brush disposal
- Total ratio of the economics of the unit
We make sales more marketable by taking a hard look at those ratios and finding commercially viable trees.
Has anyone found creative solutions to limiting the costs to road access and haul cost?
Kevin: These elements come into our sale package. There is a discretion and line officer decision space. More viable projects means more viable road infrastructure.
Tim: The BLM in the past has done firewood public access spots where they cut down juniper trees and cut down areas for public access. Within 2 years, the public had access and firewood was pulled out for use. I have learned that the public does not like to go very far for firewood gathering. If you offer something 40 miles east of town, nobody goes.
Meagan, how do you compete with fossil fuels using thermal energy projects?
Meagan: Alternative fuels are a big part of the equation. It’s tough to compete with electricity and gas. We can easily compete with propane on a dollar to dollar BTU basis. It all depends on the type of wood you are using.
Kevin, do you have the capacity to add trees larger than 21 inches to timber sales?
Kevin: The 21 inch rule was an outcome of the Eastside Screens, in place since 1994. Our intention [with the Eastside Screens] is to increase the number of old growth trees on the landscape. Unless there is a specific situation where we can do a site-specific amendment, we can’t cut those trees. We currently don’t touch them.
Can the Forest Service authorize the harvesting of burnt trees immediately after a fire?
Kevin: There are emergency situations where we can expedite the harvest of trees, but scale is a big deal. If it’s a large scale, we get into a much more robust environmental analysis. There is a tradeoff and scale is a big aspect of this.
Meagan, how difficult is it to change the scale of the project as the other factors shift around?
Meagan: Well, I have seen progress evolve while projects are underway. Scale is interesting because we figure out what the objectives are, what is the available supply, and the heat demand. We usually try and nail down the size early on and if that changes, you have to backtrack.
What kinds of concerns have you heard about supply and overharvesting among private landowners? What can you do to address these concerns?
Brian: I don’t see an issue with supply out here in the drier country because you will not be doing those operations with junipers and won’t be replanting them.
Megan: We often run into these questions and concerns. We have a lot of conversations about what these concerns are and we try to ground what we are talking about. The scale discussion makes those concerns go away. Once people understand the scale, they don’t have supply concerns.
Tim: Yes, juniper is not covered under the Forest Act. Juniper removal is focused on animal habitat and watershed values. Thousands of acres are being laid on the ground, and if they don’t come to biomass, it will get burned on the ground.