Pinyon-juniper bioenergy potential explored at conference

By Lisa Gibson | January 17, 2012

Pinyon and juniper woodlands cover about 50 million acres across the Western U.S. and nine million in Nevada alone. Thinning of those woodlands would create healthier stands, as well as provide biomass feedstock for energy production, according to Mike Baughman, executive director of the Lincoln County, Nev., Regional Development Authority.

Baughman addressed ongoing pinyon-juniper woodland thinning work in his county at the third annual Pacific West Biomass Conference & Trade Show, held in San Francisco, Calif., Jan. 16-18. Baughman told conference attendees that the Bureau of Land Management, which owns the pinyon-juniper acreage, believes thinning is vital in order to prevent wildfires, increase biodiversity, improve woodland health, and enhance wildlife habitat.

In light of that necessity and the bioenergy it could support, officials in Lincoln County studied the feasibility of operating a 10 MW power plant in Prince, Nev., using thinning from pinyon-juniper woodlands within a 50-mile radius. That area contains 722,100 acres of woodlands and could provide the 67,300 bone dry tons (BDT) per year the plant would require, according to Baughman. Harvesting, chipping and handling costs of that feedstock would be around $78.53 per BDT, the study found. Other costs, however, include planning, permitting, implementing and monitoring through BLM.

“There are a lot of different uses for this woody material,” Baughman told conference attendees, citing gasification, composting, biochar production, and torrefaction. Still, the path to industrial use of pinyon-juniper thinning is fraught with impediments, including an overall cost of biomass at about $98 per BDT, and a lack of long-term supply security. The latter is influenced by a number of factors, such as limitations in annual funding available to the BLM.

Baughman and his colleagues in Lincoln County are working to lower the biomass costs, and he is quick to point out that he expects no more funding approvals from Congress. “This is a new day, folks,” he said. But other programs exist in Nevada to help lower those costs, he said, and Lincoln County will continue to explore them.