Pacific West Biomass Profile

The Pacific West is known for its abundant woody biomass, but numerous other resources hold opportunities and enormous potential. The scale of development varies greatly, however, from state to state.
By | January 05, 2011

Biomass potential in the Pacific West goes far beyond the well-known forestry resources. From urban wood waste to dairy manure and agricultural waste, the Pacific states of Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, Washington and California have a lot to offer.

But even with such vast opportunities, development has been slower in some states than in others because of complications such as the lack of forest products industries, the need for a centralized biomass collection system, or the absence of a market for the biomass material.

Nevada Needs Infrastructure

Nevada is no stranger to such barriers. It is home to about 9 million acres of juniper and pinyon trees that are susceptible to extensive forest fires, drought and climate change, according to Dusty Moller, wood utilization manager for the Small Business Development Center at the University of Nevada, Reno. “It’s an extremely serious condition,” Moller says of the risk that he calls a climax environmental situation. “Something really needs to be done.” The state is in desperate straits, he says, because it never had a primary wood products industry that would have allowed for the processing and removal of biomass material from forests. “When you don’t have that lumber product to pay for that equipment and pay those wages, you really have a problem,” he emphasizes.

In addition to its forest resources, the state also could make use of the tremendous volume of urban wood waste that is landfilled each year. In Clark County alone, home of the Las Vegas strip, more than 230,000 tons of urban wood waste is buried annually, Moller says.

But Nevada has not seen the development boom it can support with such extensive resources and only has one operating biomass facility: a combined-heat-and-power (CHP) plant located at the White Pine County School District in Ely, part of the U.S. Forest Service Fuels for Schools program. “It’s a chicken-and-egg kind of thing,” Moller says, adding that agencies are working together to establish a framework for biomass use. He says the pinyon and juniper plots could provide around 6 tons of biomass per acre at a cost of about $300 per acre, but without a market, that material gets burned or chipped and applied back to the land. “You can put a little bit back, but in the desert, you’ll come back 20 years later and it will still be sitting there because without water, it won’t decompose,” he says.

Plenty of scenarios could jump-start Nevada’s biomass industry, currently in limbo, and be included in the equation to help the state reach its renewable portfolio standard (RPS) of 25 percent by 2025. “If we had a CHP plant or if coal-fired power plants would get onboard and start cofiring coal with this available biomass, then you could start to develop some markets,” Moller explains. “If we had a market, if the coal-fired people would cofire, if we could increase the Fuels for Schools projects, if we could get a biomass power generator, then we could have a market that would be a pull situation. So we can pull that biomass off that land. Once you get that started, it’s just kind of like a sustainable, stable industry.”

Oregon Offers Incentives

On the opposite end of the spectrum sits Oregon, with its 14 operational wood-fired CHP plants collectively making use of between 3 million and 4 million tons of woody biomass per year, according to Matt Krumenauer, senior policy analyst for the Oregon Department of Energy. It should come as no surprise that the state makes use of its abundant forest biomass resources and Krumenauer says the existing sawmill industry has been crucial to biomass development. Two-thirds to three-fourths of woody biomass used currently in Oregon is mill residuals. In fact, most of the biomass facilities are at lumber or sawmill operations, with the exception of one independent plant in the southern part of the state that generates only electricity. “It certainly is a resource we’re going to explore and try to utilize much more of,” Krumenauer says. “We do have a number of projects either under construction, in development, or in operation in the state.”

A study commissioned by the Oregon Forest Research Institute found that treatment of about 4.25 million acres, 15 percent of the state’s forestland, would provide about 20 million bone-dry tons, with an additional 1 million annually for the next 20 years, not including merchantable saw timber. About 29 percent of the 4.25 million eligible acres are privately owned, the rest dominantly federal. Other than fuel treatment of overstocked forestlands, the largest source of forest biomass is 3.6 million acres of juniper in 14 eastern counties. Urban wood waste is another biomass resource available for use in the state, as citizens discarded more than 500,000 tons in 2004, according to the state DOE.
But like other Pacific West states, woody biomass does not represent the only biomass opportunity in Oregon. In 2004, Oregonians disposed of about 3 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW), 70 percent of which could have been used for energy generation, according to the state DOE. Oregon also supports biogas operations at wastewater treatment plants that generate heat or electricity. Still, the DOE estimates that about 36 percent of the biogas produced at wastewater treatment facilities is unused. In addition, biogas from more than 100 dairy farms large enough to install digesters could produce about 13 megawatts (MW) of electricity if used to its full potential.

Oregon also has a well-established grass seed industry, freeing up tremendous amounts of grass straw residue. The state DOE estimates that in 2003, a total of 1.5 million bone-dry tons of material was available from farming operations and capable of producing about 213 MW. “We’re finding ways to use that either in digesters or in pellets or in ethanol production,” Krumenauer says.

Oregon offers a number of incentives for renewable energy generation including tax credits for the production and collection of biomass material for use in bioenergy or biofuels. The program offers $10 per green ton of biomass material and helps reduce open burning while helping leverage forest stewardship work, Krumenauer says. “It’s been quite a popular program, primarily on the woody biomass side.”

With such incentives and an existing framework boosting so many projects, Oregon seems to be well on its way to reaching its RPS of 25 percent by 2025 for larger utilities and between 5 and 10 percent for smaller ones.


Idaho Eyes Dairy Waste

Being the third-largest dairy state in the U.S., Idaho has made a push to utilize waste materials and has five operating dairy digesters. “We’re a huge dairy state,” says John Crockett, senior energy specialist for the Idaho Office of Energy Resources. “There’s a huge potential there.” Idaho is home to more than 600,000 dairy animals and about 70 percent of them, along with 126 of the largest farms, reside in the south-central portion of the state dubbed the Magic Valley, according to an Idaho Strategic Energy Alliance Task Force report. The report estimates that the Magic Valley alone could produce more than 34 billion Btu per day from dairy waste.

As in most populated areas, MSW could serve as another resource for bioenergy and the task force report estimates about 1.08 million pounds were discarded in 2006. That volume could produce enough landfill gas to generate about 1,482 MW and power about 120 homes. The state supports two landfill gas-to-energy projects and has identified 49 food and beverage facilities that are candidates for anaerobic digestion. Eight already employ the process to treat wastewater, yielding a total annual energy production value of 542 billion Btu and accounting for 39 percent of the biogas potential from the entire 49, the report says.

Still, Idaho is experiencing an increased interest in woody biomass utilization and already has three wood-fired power plants, with another on the verge of securing a power purchase agreement, Crockett says. “Our biggest resource is wood,” he says. According to task force reports, the state’s forest biomass, including thinning and residues, amounts to about 1.3 million dry tons annually, enough to generate about 130 MW. The report points out, however, that the material is at logging sites and would need to be harvested and transported.

The report recommends the state help spur development of woody biomass facilities through creation of a business tax credit, expansion of the Fuels for Schools program, creation of a biomass removal incentive, an increase in Forest Service funding for forest restoration, a change in the federal definition of biomass, and an increase in community support. Idaho is also the sole Pacific West state without an RPS.

In addition, Idaho is home to a number of citizen working groups pushing for the use of the available woody materials, Crockett says, including one that spans four counties, another in the central part of the state and one in the north. “We’re hoping to try to get those groups working together if we can,” he says.

Washington Wipes Out Waste

Such teamwork is almost perfected in Washington, where many state agencies are forging ahead with strategies aimed at increasing biomass use. The most recent biomass inventory for the state found it produces about 16.4 million tons of underutilized dry equivalent biomass each year, capable of producing more than 1,700 MW, about 50 percent of annual residential electricity consumption. Not surprisingly, forestry makes up 49 percent of that total, but is complemented by crop residues, animal waste, food processing residues and municipal wastes. “What we’ve demonstrated is there’s a lot of material out there, but what we also know is it’s not really organized,” says Mark Fuchs of the Washington Department of Ecology Waste 2 Resources program and author of the report, “Biomass Inventory and Bioenergy Assessment: An Evaluation of Organic Material Resources for Bioenergy Production in Washington State.” “This industry is ripe for entities to come in and organize.”

Work is being done to collect broadly distributed feedstocks at centralized locations, he says, but that chore is just beginning. Fuchs' assessment does not put an economic factor on collection of biomass material and roughly one-third of it already goes through some sort of system and would need further refining to recover energy nutrients, he says. The state is now home to 13 significantly sized wood-fired facilities, 12 of which are CHP, according to Peter Moulton, senior energy policy specialist for the state Department of Commerce.

Following forestry, municipal waste accounts for 24 percent of the 16.4 million tons; field residues come next at 14 percent; and animal waste represents 11 percent, according to the report. Fuchs makes note of the fact that a 2005 study by the U.S. DOE and USDA, “Biomass as Feedstock for a Bioenergy and Bioproducts Industry: The Technical Feasibility of a Billion-Ton Annual Supply,” also known as the Billon-Ton Report, seems to have underestimated Washington’s organic material availability at 9 million tons. “We think we’re closer to 16 million,” he says. “That’s a 76 percent increase.” He adds that reports due out in the next few months will likely find even more biomass material potential.

To help utilize all that tonnage, the Waste 2 Resources program has established the Beyond Waste plan, which has a 30-year vision of transitioning to a society that views waste as inefficient and where most wastes and toxic substances have been eliminated, Fuchs says. The state also has an RPS of 15 percent by 2020.

“I expect that in 10 years or so, there will be lots of companies doing [feedstock organization] work,” he says. “But it’ll take time for people to recognize that there’s a business opportunity there.”

California’s Commanding RPS

California has the most aggressive RPS of the five Pacific West states, at 33 percent by 2020. It’s a good thing, then, that the most recent inventory found that biomass in the state totaled 83 million gross bone dry tons in 2007, and is expected to increase to 98 million by 2020, according to “An Assessment of Biomass Resources in California, 2007.” The report specifies, though, that technically sustainable resources, which amounted to 32 million bone dry tons in 2007, are expected to increase to 40 million in 2020. The current technical potential includes 8 million tons in agriculture, 14 million from forestry and 9 million tons from MSW excluding waste in landfills and biomass in sewage. Dedicated crops are being grown mostly on an experimental basis and are not included in the total for 2007, the report clarifies.

Gross electrical generation potential from biomass in 2007 was near 9,500 MWe with more than 1,900 MWe from agriculture, 3,500 from forestry and 3,900 from MSW including landfill and sewage digester gas. Technical generating potential is closer to 3,820 MWe. A gross capacity of 985 MW could be reached collectively in California from about 30 existing solid fuel combustion facilities, 60 landfill-gas-to-energy systems, 20 wastewater treatment plants, and 22 animal and food waste digesters, according to research by Rob Williams, development engineer for the University of California, Davis’ California Biomass Collaborative. Roughly 5,000 gigawatt hours per year are produced through direct combustion of about 5 million bone dry tons of solid fuels such as forest biomass, urban wood, agricultural and food processing materials, and MSW, he adds. Landfill gas, wastewater digester gas and manure digesters produce another 2,600 gigawatt hours or so per year.

But expansion of biogas from manure development has come to a halt because of a limit of 9 parts per million on nitrogen oxide emissions by the state Air Resources Board, according to Mark Jenner, plant sciences analyst at UC Davis and member of the California Biomass Collaborative.

Policies and standards could be a barrier in the way of other biomass plant development, too. “The debate over moving the build up of fuel out of the forests to prevent wild fires versus leaving it within the forest to preserve habitat and reduce disturbance is as active in California as it is anywhere else,” Jenner says. “Wildfires destroy thousands of acres each year and are expensive to fight. They destroy lots of resources and emit lots of particulate matter, VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and CO2 (carbon dioxide). Biofuels and biopower could serve as potential drivers to pay for the removal, but the policies need to be coordinated before that can happen.”

Resources in the Pacific West are by no means in short supply and such policy analysis and change could mean a better environment for their use in bioenergy development. Learn more about the potential, technologies, existing projects, development barriers and more at BBI International’s Pacific West Biomass Conference & Trade Show to be held Jan. 10-12 at the Sheraton Seattle Hotel in Seattle.

Author: Lisa Gibson
Associate Editor, Biomass Power & Thermal
(701) 738-4952


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