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Oregon’s “forest to boiler” movement is picking up steam

Posted by Renee Magyar on March 27, 2013

There is a 'new' fuel in Oregon that is replacing heating oil: wood. And it's saving money for schools and restoring forest land

John-Day-high-school-biomass-boiler-facility
On a snowy winter day in John Day, Oregon, the high school is heated with local renewable wood fuel.

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. However, the majority of the state does not have access to natural gas and instead must rely on much more expensive petroleum heating oil.

OR Natural Gas Utility Service Territories. Source: Oregon Department of Energy, July 2012
OR Natural Gas Utility Service Territories. Source: Oregon Department of Energy, July 2012

But in the past few years a number of rural Oregon schools have switched over from oil to an alternative fuel source that is saving between $20,000 and $120,000 annually on heating costs: wood pellets and chips. Following the "farm to table" sustainable sourcing model, the "forest to boiler" movement is picking up steam. (#heatlocal)

Oregon is at the forefront of U.S. biomass energy production, with wood pellet boilers currently heating 12 schools, up from only 2 schools in 2010. In total there are 19 projects currently up and running in Oregon at schools, hospitals, airports, and other facilities. And more feasibility studies are on the books for potential new conversion projects. 

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 the forests have grown to an unhealthy, fire-prone condition. Restoration projects are underway each year to thin overcrowded and dead trees, but the 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 public-private partnership created an integrated biomass campus that is able to process a variety of local tree species and log sizes into various marketable products such as posts and poles, densified wood logs, firewood, and chips for gardens and animal bedding. 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 and sorted and loaded onto trucks. The integrated campus includes a sorting yard allowing for much smaller forest impact. 

It also helps to 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 mill for processing into wood fuel. High efficiency EPA-certified boilers then use this fuel and significantly reduce its particulate and carbon output, especially compared to the emissions of wood burned in open fireplaces, inefficient wood stoves, or 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 as 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 sq. miles) burned in the nation, of which 600,000 acres were in Oregon. And this trend is increasing at an alarming rate.

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. In 2012 the federal government spent $3 billion fighting wildfires last year but only $350 million on forest management and restoration. We're working to change that ratio.

It's not just about rural

If you live in a timber town, the need for these local systems is readily apparent. The ripple effect from a lost industry - or a massive wildfire - can be devastating to a town. But if you don't see these effects first hand, the urgency might be less evident unless you consider that the Forest Service is currently spending close to $3 billion, half their annual budget (our tax dollars), on fire suppression. Imagine what the Forest Service could do with this extra $3 billion dollars. The backlog of trail and campground facility maintenance would be a great start. Or perhaps restoration of the rivers and watersheds that provide us all with clean air and drinking water.

What you can do to help

There is increasing state and national attention on the symbiosis of local biomass energy production and forest restoration. In August 2012 Oregon received a Forest Service pilot grant to develop biomass energy cluster projects that will use waste from forest restoration for heating energy. In the next couple of months there will be opportunities at the state and national levels to voice your support for biomass projects that restore forests. In the meantime, consider supporting forest restoration and pellet businesses directly by switching out your inefficient wood stove for a clean burning pellet stove. The Oregon Department of Energy has a tax credit incentive program that can help with this. 

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 have more money to pay for schools and other infrastructure, and achieve economic self-sufficiency. And everyone - rural and urban residents alike - can continue to enjoy and benefit from a beautiful, scenic, and healthy Northwest.