A Bright Future for Oregon Biomassby David Van't Hof and Paul Barnum
The Oregonian, March 19, 2010
Furthering the discussion prompted by last Friday's article in The Oregonian on biomass, we'd ask two key questions: How does biomass fit Oregon and the nation's energy strategy? And does biomass further Oregon's competitive advantage with respect to renewable energy?
As a nation, we've struggled to find an energy strategy other than to use more of it. To the extent there is a consensus, it's this: Reduce dependence on foreign sources of energy. Encourage and reward conservation. Decrease carbon dioxide emissions. Accelerate the use of renewables. Acknowledge there are trade-offs with all energy production but, with all forms, produce energy as cleanly as possible.
Does forest biomass further that strategy? The answer has to be "yes." Foremost, woody material is a renewable resource. It's not a fossil fuel and it's not foreign. The prevailing view is that because tree growth captures atmospheric carbon, biomass is carbon neutral in the long term.
Is biomass as clean as other renewables? While combusting biomass does generate CO2 and certain particulate emissions, it does so with pollution controls that make it much cleaner than if the biomass is burned in the woods either through controlled burns or uncontrolled forest fire. It is a net improvement.
No energy source is perfect. One challenge with wind and solar is that they don't produce around the clock and must be "firmed up" with other energy sources. Northwest wind projects have been fortunate to utilize the Columbia River hydro system for firming to date, but that system may be reaching its capacity for firming, and the most likely future source will be natural gas. Biomass can produce 24/7, and as such can be part of the solution to the challenges of other renewable energy sources and can help displace the use of fossil fuels.
Oregon has a diversity of renewable energy generation options, and that gives us a competitive advantage. The Oregon Business Plan states that Oregon's eastside forests badly need thinning to avoid catastrophic fires and ecological disaster. With 100 years of fire suppression and little active management, many federally managed east side and interior southwest Oregon forests have high levels of fuel buildup in dead and small live trees, putting them at moderate to severe risk of unusually intense fire. A woody biomass sector focused on restoration of our forests is a tremendous opportunity to promote healthier forests while providing rural Oregon with economic opportunity.
We should use this material for biomass energy to help create and sustain jobs in Oregon's rural communities, where we need them most. The Oregon Forest Resources Institute estimates that between logging slash and restoration thinning statewide, Oregon can sustainably produce upwards to 5 million tons of woody biomass each year, which would create an estimated 4,500 new jobs.
Healthy demand for woody biomass also would strengthen the financial incentive for private landowners to maintain their lands as forest, slowing the pace of forestland conversion for development and sustaining private forest contributions to habitat, water and air quality, recreation and carbon sequestration.
Oregonians should embrace the opportunity to manage our forests in a way that fully integrates conservation and economic objectives and contributes to the desire for renewable energy. The benefits to all Oregonians and to the nation could be profound.
To be sure, there are trade-offs. Using biomass to generate energy is not a silver bullet, nor is any renewable energy resource. However, it can play an important role, along with other sources of renewable energy generation, to accomplish long-term reductions of CO2, combat climate change, and stimulate new jobs and economic opportunity.
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