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Forest Industry Taking a Swing at Renewable Energy

by Don Brunell
The Columbian, February 2, 2009

With lumber and paper markets depressed, forest industry leaders are shifting focus to the production of renewable “green” energy.

Right now, many sawmills are either closed or on limited production. The housing slump has reduced the market for building supplies, and with newsprint, magazine, photographic and business paper increasingly being replaced by electronic storage, foresters are looking at electricity generation as a way to provide jobs and much needed income.

For example, Simpson Investment Co. is building a $100 million energy plant on Tacoma's Tideflats that will convert wood and paper wastes into enough electricity to power 44,000 homes. The new 55-megawatt plant will burn wood wastes from its sawmill and black liquor from its pulping operation to fuel the power plant.

Simpson, which has reduced the use of fossil fuels at its Tacoma paper mill, has cut its greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50 percent. Its tree farms have more than enough capacity to absorb the carbon dioxide released from the new power plant.

The electricity produced is classified as renewable in California and Oregon, but under Washington's I-937, black liquor, a sugary wood slurry recovered from the cooking of chips in the pulping process, does not qualify as a renewable energy source. Unless the Washington Legislature changes I-937, our homes, hospitals, buildings, schools and factories will not be in the market for Simpson's power.

Forest landowners can be a major supplier of renewable energy. Last September, Weyerhaeuser leased geothermal rights on 667,000 acres of its forestlands in western Washington, Oregon and California.

AltaRock, a California based firm, will be boring three miles into the earth looking for hot rock with temperatures ranging from 300 to 500 degrees Fahrenheit. In the Napa area north of San Francisco, there are 43 geothermal power plants that produce just less than five percent of the state's electricity. Some of the same geological formations that could produce geothermal energy exist in other parts of the coastal and Cascade Mountain ranges.

Iceland heating up

Iceland's five major geothermal power plants produce 25 percent of the country's electricity. In addition, low-pressure geothermal steam and hot water provide heat and hot water for 87 percent of the nation's buildings.

While geothermal and wood waste produce high pressure steam to spin turbines that generate electricity, other Scandinavian countries, like Iceland, are finding ways to send hot water and low pressure steam to buildings and homes for heat. The closed loops resemble the central power boilers on college campuses and military bases where steam is sent by insulated pipes to a web of buildings and returned to the boiler to be reheated and recirculated.

Rather than venting low pressure steam from power plants or pulp mills, one day that waste steam may actually heat homes and buildings in cities like Tacoma, Port Angeles, Longview, Camas and the Tri-Cities. It all depends on economics. The investment has to make economic sense before private companies will spend millions, even billions, developing renewable energy systems and perhaps some of the same incentives for wind and solar production could apply here as well.

Finally, Washington's forest landowners see their timberlands today as giant air scrubbers. Trees absorb carbon dioxide — a greenhouse gas — and convert it into life-giving oxygen, storing excess CO safely in the ground.

It's apparent that trees are a valuable commodity. They not only provide lumber, plywood, chipboard and paper but wood waste from milling can provide energy in addition to growing trees to cleanse our air of greenhouse gases.

Currently on state and federal lands, dead and dying trees are left to rot, causing disease and bug infestation or leading to wildfires that spew millions of tons of ash and greenhouse gases into our atmospshere. Instead, public forest managers should take a cue from private foresters and implement resforestation and waste recovery programs.

After all, it's only common sense to make the best use of our natural resources.

Don Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business, Washington state's chamber of commerce.
Forest Industry Taking a Swing at Renewable Energy
The Columbian, February 2, 2009

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