Up in smoke

Posted by Lee Rahr on November 19, 2014

From slash piles to boilers, finding a better use for biomass


On a cool and sunny morning, my colleague Dylan and I recently drove across the southern Cascade Range on Highway 58 on our way to Klamath Falls for energy planning meetings. East of Oakridge in the Deschutes National Forest, Oregon Department of Transportation crews were managing hundreds of burning roadside slash piles.

Forest thinning to create fire breaks is a common practice in our national forests. Many of these forests are in poor condition and are vulnerable to abnormal and devastating fires. Therefore, fire breaks are an important strategy to keep our highways and drivers safe, and create a natural barrier that prevents the spread of wildfire. Ironically, however, as we drove to Klamath Falls to discuss the benefits of biomass as a local energy source, it prompted the question of how we can deliver roadside wood waste to contained biomass boilers, which can create heat and power for rural communities.

In forest slash piles, wood waste is left over from logging and thinning operations. These piles are typically burned off to prevent further fuel build-up in our forests. But when these piles are burned off, the wood ‘waste’ is wasted completely. A way to remedy this problem is to develop local wood waste markets for heat and energy generation and wood product manufacturing that will create demand for these local highway thinning projects.

Biomass projects increase local energy generation, save money by reducing fossil fuel consumption, and reduce carbon and other air emissions that result from burning slash piles and heating with fossil fuels. A 2011 peer-reviewed study in the Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association reported dramatic decreases in emissions when wood waste is used in a controlled combined heat and power facility versus open pile burning. The study reported particulate emissions were reduced by 98%, nitrogen oxide (NOX) emissions by 54%, carbon monoxide (CO) emissions by 97%, and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 17% when compared to open burning practices. As federal, state and local leaders face challenges to reduce carbon in the face of climate change, reducing slash burning and transporting wood waste to contained boilers for heat and power is a practical, local solution that needs to be accelerated.

Rural communities nestled within federal and state forests are well positioned to increase their energy independence with local energy sources. And biomass from forest wood waste is an important step that communities can take today to promote a green and local energy future. It’s going to take all kinds of renewable energy sources to build an independent green future – and we’re eager to help find the local solutions.

Lee Rahr is Energy Program Director, and Dylan Kruse leads biomass efforts at Sustainable Northwest.