Vermont organization develops tool to assess biomass supply

By Sarah Smith
Harvesting forests has become the latest gold rush in the race to convert biomass into energy. The Vermont-based Biomass Energy Resource Center has developed a tool for assessing the state's available low-grade wood for biomass harvesting. It can also be adapted to any location in the United States to assess annual forest sustainability.

The tool, which uses data from the U.S. Forest Service's Forest Inventory and Analysis Unit, looks at regional wood supply. It calculates the portion of the total forested land area that is available for harvesting low-grade wood and examines the resource on a sustained-yield basis, considering the standing inventory, species mix of trees and net annual growth rate. "We want to make sure we're not overharvesting for biomass fuels, and we don't want to encourage projects that won't have a supply of biomass," said BERC spokeswoman Cindy Wyckoff. The BERC found that land ownership impacts biomass availability, so it factors that, as well.

Program Manager Adam Sherman said the tool has "big picture" policy implications for state and federal agencies. The data gives a conservative estimate to assure the availability of biomass for various projects. "Not only do we calculate how much surplus low-grade wood is out there, but we explore the potential of moving wood to the market as a commodity fuel," he said. "This calculation allows policymakers to ask how far the available wood will go. Then they can ask what sort of diversified biomass energy portfolio should utilize this material [efficiently]."

The BERC hopes to help other states assess their resources for forest biomass harvest using this tool. Once a net annual growth rate of new wood in the forest is established, a spatial look will tell planners where the greatest concentration of wood is, enabling them to develop a biomass energy industry and marketplace. "So you don't end up trucking wood across the state, burning a lot of fossil fuels in the process," Sherman said.

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