Oregon’s Forest-to-Boiler Movement

Community-based biomass projects restore economic vitality and forest health, but funding forest restoration—the lifeblood of many projects— poses challenges.
By Renee Magyar | July 01, 2013

In areas of Oregon not served by natural gas, there is a new fuel in town that is replacing heating oil: wood. And it’s saving money for schools and restoring forest lands. Natural gas is the preferred fuel for heating homes and businesses in Oregon due to its relatively low cost, but the majority of the state does not have access to natural gas and instead must rely on much more expensive petroleum heating oil.

Following the farm-to-table sustainable sourcing model, the forest-to-boiler movement is picking up steam. Oregon is among the leaders in U.S. biomass energy production, with a total of 19 projects up and running at schools, hospitals, airports and other facilities. Wood pellet boilers currently heat 12 schools—up from only two in 2010—and those that have switched from oil to wood pellets or wood chips are saving between $20,000 and $120,000 annually on heating costs.

Saving money and using a renewable fuel is great for small towns and schools, and it’s also great for the neighboring national forests. Since the decline of the timber industry in the early 1990s, forests in eastern Oregon have grown to an unhealthy, fire-prone condition. Restoration projects are underway each year to thin overcrowded and dead trees, but the U.S. Forest Service is still struggling to fund the amount of work necessary to return the forests to historic, fire-adapted conditions where forest fire is natural and beneficial instead of widely destructive.

Twenty years ago, the primary barrier to forest management projects in the West was heated disagreement over how to treat the forest—one side wanted to protect it, while another wanted to keep the mills running. This conflict has largely been resolved, as opposing interests have found new ways to work together. Now, the main challenge is funding. Forest restoration work needs to be profitable, otherwise it can’t happen.

Wallowa County in northeastern Oregon is taking an innovative approach to addressing this challenge. A partnership between local businesses, a local nonprofit, and the county government created an integrated biomass campus that is able to process a variety of local tree species and log sizes into various marketable products, including heating fuels, firewood, landscaping timbers and post and poles. This increased revenue stream provides an incentive for the forest service to implement additional restoration projects, and allows for more acres to be restored. Historically, different log species and sizes would have been sent to separate mills, greatly increasing the cost of transportation, thus lowering the value of the wood, the subsequent sticker price, and the impetus for restoration. In addition, having that many more log trucks in the forest would require a much larger landing site, the clearing in the forest where the logs are piled, sorted and loaded onto trucks. The integrated campus includes a sorting yard allowing for a much smaller forest impact.

It also helps reduce carbon and air particulates by making use of the slash—the underbrush, branches and tiny trees that get piled up during thinning projects. The forest service is required to remove the piles since they add fuel to wildfires, and, without a cost-effective use for them, the slash piles are otherwise burned in the forest. Now the piles are being sent to the biomass campus in Wallowa, Ore., for processing into wood fuel, some of which is used at the facility in a 100-kilowatt combined-heat-and-power biomass plant that brings onsite material efficiency close to 100 percent. The remaining wood fuel is sold in the local market for use in high-efficiency,U.S. EPA-certified boilers that have significantly lower particulate and carbon output than slash piles.

All of this adds up to incredible cost savings, and a renewable local system of restoration and efficient use of natural resources, not to mention the jobs that are created in the forest and the mills. But funding restoration projects—the keystone of the whole system—is still a huge challenge. The federal government is stuck in a cycle of fire suppression. Wildfires in the West are greatly increasing in scale and severity as the effects of climate change set in. In 2012 alone, 9 million acres (14,062 square miles) burned in the nation, of which 600,000 acres were in Oregon.

Through our Dry Forest Investment Zone program, Sustainable Northwest has helped establish conditions that allow integrated biomass campuses to be established in Oregon, and we continue to advocate for increased funding for large-scale federal forest restoration projects. Last year, the U.S. Forest Service spent $3 billion—half its annual budget—fighting wildfires, but only $350 million on forest management and restoration. We’re working to change that ratio.

In addition to holding budget conversations with federal land management agencies and Congressional appropriations committees this spring, our rural policy network met with Congressional staff about reauthorization for the Community Wood Energy Program in the Farm Bill. The Senate Farm Bill supports a five-year reauthorization at the level of $5 million annually, with the House version also supporting a five-year reauthorization, but at only $2 million per year. Barring an unlikely untying of House purse strings, we’ll be happy to see a compromise in the final version. 

There is increasing state and national attention on the symbiosis of local biomass energy production and forest restoration. The Obama administration is looking for ways to incentivize biomass energy development projects across the country. One possible pathway is through investment tax credits. Maine Sen. Angus King recently introduced the Biomass Thermal Utilization Act of 2013, which would create parity between biomass and other renewable energy credits, such as wind and solar, for thermal energy purposes.

Last August, Oregon received a Forest Service pilot grant to develop biomass energy cluster projects that will use residuals from forest restoration for heating energy. Six groups each received between $9,000 and $50,000 to perform feasibility and engineering studies for biomass conversion projects. The intent of this pilot is to replicate successful results from Oregon in other states across the country. In the meantime, the Oregon Department of Energy is working to establish financing mechanisms to help suitable projects with implementation.

As we see more and more positive results from innovative systems like forest-to-boiler, it’s easy to remain optimistic that our small towns will continue to rebound. As long as we remain on an upward trend, counties will continue to save money and see increased independence from fossil fuels.

Author:  Renee Magyar
Marketing Manager, Sustainable Northwest