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Sawmills could fuel vehicles, experts say

Mon., April 2, 2007

Once upon a time, logs were used for making houses and paper.

Now, they’re being looked at as one of the most promising tools for helping the United States grow its way to energy independence.

Bioenergy from forest products was the buzz at a convention last week of foresters and logging operators in Coeur d’Alene.

Sawmills and loggers have access to a seemingly endless mountain of sawdust, mill shavings and bark that can be fairly easily transformed into a sustainable form of energy, said Phil Latos, who oversees research and development for softwood lumber technology for Weyerhaeuser.

“We can also think of ourselves as oil companies,” Latos told the audience of the Small Log Conference.

Not only can these waste wood products be used to feed the world’s insatiable demand for wood pellets – especially in Europe, where pellets are a major fuel supply for electrical plants – but technology is also nearly ready that will transform wood cellulose into ethanol. Twenty-eight enzymes are patented and being tested for their ability to transform wood fibers into ethanol, which, like the ethanol from corn and soybeans, can be used to fuel vehicles.

“There’s so much money going into this area and so much potential with high oil prices,” said Latos, who is based in Edmonton.

With its thick forests and long-established logging industry, the Inland Northwest is in a great position for the coming wood energy revolution, said Marcia Patton-Mallory, biomass and bioenergy coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service. Before it becomes energy, the biomass must be removed from the forest and processed.

“The existence of a forest products industry is fundamental,” Patton-Mallory said.

Vehicles in the United States burn about 150 billion gallons of fuel each year, according to federal statistics. About 4.4 billion of that comes from ethanol – mostly from corn and soybeans. Forest biomass has vast potential for adding to this supply, said Edmund Gee, national woody biomass utilization director for the Forest Service.

A dry ton of wood chips can be transformed into about 85 gallons of ethanol, Gee said. Forests could sustainably produce about 370 million tons of biomass each year, according to a study published in April 2005 by the federal departments of Energy and Agriculture. Combined with farm production, the nation could grow about a third of its vehicle fuel supply needs by 2030, according to the study.

Enzyme digesters needed to transform wood fibers into ethanol on a commercial scale are expected to be ready in five years, Gee said. But ground was recently broken on a wood-to-ethanol plant in Georgia that’s expected to produce 1 billion gallons annually. At least eight other plants are being planned, including one in southern Idaho that will produce ethanol from straw and agricultural waste.

The Forest Service sees such technology as a way to not only power the nation but also to help reduce the threat of wildfire, Gee said. Last year, a record 10 million acres of forest burned. The agency believes 100 million acres of forest are at risk for a burn. Thinning these thick tracts of forest costs upward of $600 per acre, Gee said. “We just don’t have the dollars we need to do our work effectively.”

The economics could change radically as biomass increases in value.

One example where this is already happening is a new bioenergy power plant in Lakeview, Ore., said Alaric Sample, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Pinchot Institute for Conservation. The power plant is using portable generation technology developed in Scandinavia to produce electricity from sawdust and bark, which would otherwise be wasted, Sample said.

He said he sees huge promise for similar bioenergy stations for rural, forested communities. Not only would they be able to tap a cheap – if not free – source of domestic power, but they might be able to generate extra energy to sell on the power grid. “That’s a marvelous situation for a rural community to be in,” Sample said.

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