The Biomass Twilight Zone

By Anna Simet | March 08, 2013

As I was reading some industry news over my morning coffee, I came across a news article titled “Wood Chips Costing Towns Big Bucks after Sandy.”

My first reaction to that was, “Why are they spending so much to buy wood chips?” Moments later I realized the headline was trying to convey the idea that it was actually to get rid of them. Some towns are being forced to spend loads of money in order to have tree chippings and wood waste hauled away, a lingering problem compliments of Hurricane Sandy.

Middletown, N.J. is reporting that it’s shelling out $6.88 per cubic yard, and the township’s bill could be nearly $1 million to get rid of the estimated 140,000 cubic yards of ground-up storm debris.

One million bucks to pay someone to haul away wood chips. What are suppliers in the Northeast selling wood chips for these days—$35 to $40 per ton? Knowing the impact the cost of feedstock has on a biomass energy operation, initially, this seems a little backwards. But transportation logistics are an issue, the wood has to be chipped to the right size, and if it’s intermingled with other wastes, that complicates things, and doesn’t make it an ideal fuel. And those are probably not all of the issues involved.

Anyway, Middletown is not alone. A local newspaper added that nearby towns are paying anywhere from $6.50 to $8.50 per cubic yard to get rid of their chippings.

It’s too bad there isn’t a better way. It seems this really makes the case of onsite power generation—a hospital, a school and some areas businesses using wood chip-fired energy systems. Or a community-scale district heating system. I’ve heard of biomass energy operations within city limits making deals with the city that allow them to gather and use storm debris for fuel at no cost, but perhaps that’s not an option in some of the towns.

Bottom line is that it’s just a shame to see waste wood go to waste.