Environment | Economy

Wood: The Hot New Renewable Energy Source

spr | April 2, 2009 8:57 a.m. | Updated: July 17, 2012 1:11 a.m. | Kettle Falls, WA

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Doug Nadvornick By Doug Nadvornick

Renewable energy sources are catching on in the Northwest. Windmills have become a familiar sight along parts of the Oregon-Washington border. But the hot new form of renewable energy is actually the region’s oldest source of heat: wood.

It’s also known as biomass. Entrepreneurs and local governments are eyeing it as a potential fuel for new power plants in the Northwest. Correspondent Doug Nadvornick reports.


 Biomass
Avista’s wood-fired power plant near Kettle Falls, Washington is the only large-scale biomass project operating in the Inland Northwest.

It’s a noisy climb to the roof of Avista Utilities’ wood waste burning plant near Kettle Falls, Washington. Avista is known primarily for hydropower. But 25 years ago it opened this facility in the middle of timber country, about 85 miles northwest of Spokane.

Greg Wiggins controls the plant in a room with lots of computer screens and video monitors. But he has brought us up here to show off the stunning view.

Greg Wiggins: “We’re nestled here right on Lake Roosevelt. Pristine country still. The beautiful mountains. You know it’s a neat place to raise a family. It’s kind of nice.”

Down below, Wiggins points to several piles of woody debris that will soon be ferried into the plant’s boiler. They call it hog fuel.

Greg Wiggins: “We’re burning roughly 1600 tons of hog fuel a day. So that would equate to two of these semi-truck loads an hour that we need to bring into the plant.”

On this cold day, white steam comes from the stack.

Greg Wiggins: “That is water vapor. You come here during the summer months and you won’t see anything.”

You don’t smell anything either.

Wiggins says the smoke from this giant woodstove gets captured. The ash that’s left after burning is hauled to a landfill a mile away.

Some consider this facility the granddaddy of what they hope will be a series of wood waste burners.

Recently, two energy companies, one from France, one from North Carolina, announced their joint interest in building one or even two large biomass plants in the Inland Northwest. They say the facilities would add to the region’s portfolio of  renewable energy and would bring jobs.

Several rural communities are eager to get in on the action. Karl Dye leads the economic development agency in Sandpoint, Idaho. 

Karl Dye: “We’re looking at it from a community approach. You know, how can we better utilize the material that today is burnt out in the forest and put it to use for heat and energy?”

The interest in biomass extends down into eastern Oregon. The town of Baker City has applied for federal stimulus money to help finance a wood-fired power plant and pellet mill.

But there are serious questions to be answered before companies start building. You might be surprised at the most pressing one: is there enough wood in the Northwest to go around?

Ron Gray: “That’s what keeps me up at night actually is trying to figure out how to wood this facility.”

Ron Gray is the fuel manager at Avista’s Kettle Falls plant.

Ron Gray: “What we’re looking primarily is the sawmill waste. It’s the lowest value of the typical sawmill byproducts that somebody else can’t use.”

But with fewer sawmills operating, there isn’t much of that material available. Nor are there as many slash piles from logging operations. Gray says the competition for that material is already fierce.

The U.S. Forest Service, though, is trying to provide relief.

Gary Dickerson from the agency’s office in Missoula, Montana says the Forest Service is making available more of the sticks and branches left from timber harvests on federal land.

Gary Dickerson: “We’re now requiring a lot of that material to be cut and brought down to the landing right next to the road so that material can be put on a truck and be utilized for biomass material.”

The Forest Service is also moving toward allowing more small trees to be cut as part of thinning programs. The agency would rather have the wood burn in a controlled plant than fueling a huge wildfire.

The future of biomass in the Northwest depends in part on a federal study on how much downed wood might be available. The Forest Service is due to release its findings in late April. And many are eyeing that closely, including conservation groups. Barry Rosenberg from the Kootenai Environmental Alliance in Coeur d’Alene says he’s not against burning wood, but he has questions. He worries that once wood waste plants are up and going, the Forest Service will feel pressure to satisfy the demand for more fuel.

Barry Rosenberg: “Once they run out of readily available — quote — 'small trees', then what are they going to do? Then I think they’re going to find excuses and reasons to cut larger trees and then take them and use them for this process.”

With so many unresolved issues, it’s not yet clear whether huge biomass plants like this one are feasible in the Inland Northwest. But wood burning is becoming more popular for smaller projects.

The University of Idaho heats much of its campus with a wood-fired boiler, so do several school districts in Idaho and Montana. Several other hospitals and at least one prison are considering doing the same.

That means the Northwest’s oldest form of energy will play a more prominent role in its green future.

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