'Before this, I would literally put a torch to it': Tour highlights biomass availability

By Tom Callis
Peninsula Daily News

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PORT ANGELES -- In the misty hills south of here, the rumbling of large machinery reverberating out of a clearing offered a telltale sign of a North Olympic Peninsula tradition: logging.

But the small crew operating the equipment -- an excavator and chipping machine -- last Wednesday morning weren't there to cut trees; that harvest was made last spring.

The job of the Hermann Brothers' employees was to make use of the half-dozen piles of tree branches and other large woody debris, known as slash, left from the logging operation.

"Before this, I would literally put a torch to it," explained Cam Field, a Merrill & Ring forester, while pointing to a slash pile during a tour of the operation.

Instead of burning the piles, large enough to dwarf a truck, the chipping machine quickly chews up the wood, which is dumped into a waiting trailer.

Called hog fuel by loggers but known more widely as biomass, the chips will be used by Nippon Paper Industries USA's Port Angeles mill and the Port Townsend Paper Corp.'s mill to power their steam boilers.

The practice has been touted as a perfect marriage between logging and a drive for renewable energy.

But as several mills in the state -- including Nippon and Port Townsend Paper -- plan to increase their biomass consumption in order, partially, to produce electricity that they would sell, several environmental groups have called foul.

They claim that consuming slash is not sustainable and worry that the practice will damage forest health.

The tour Wednesday, held by members of the state Society of American Foresters' North Olympic Chapter and attended by about 60 people, was an attempt to try to quell those concerns and make the case for biomass as a source of green energy.

One of the main criticisms made by environmentalists, including those appealing permits for Nippon's $71 million biomass power project, is that the practice will lead to logging sites being stripped of woody material needed to return nutrients to the soil, or worse, that trees will be cut simply for fuel.

John Calhoun, director of the University of Washington's Olympic Natural Resources Center, said he doesn't foresee it ever becoming profitable for biomass producers to go beyond slash piles in search of fuel in the forests.

The rest of the woody debris left on logging sites is too little an amount to make it worthwhile, he said.

"There's more cost to collect it than there can possibly be worth," Calhoun said.

The laws of economics would also prevent trees from being cut just for fuel, Field said, adding that logging companies can receive more money for selling logs to lumber mills.

"The last thing I want to do is turn $1,000 into a $160 haul," he said.

Bob Lynette, a biomass opponent from Sequim and a member of the North Olympic Sierra Club, called the tour "comprehensive" but said he wasn't convinced to change his mind.

"The devil is always in the details," he said.

"I want to know the long-term sustainability" of biomass, added Lynette, a former renewable energy consultant.

"I don't think that was answered today."

One of the other tour participants, Port Angeles musician Charlie Ferris, said he came to see for himself what biomass is all about.

Ferris said he came with an open mind but left undecided.

But he said he was impressed by Hermann Brothers' investment in its biomass operation.

Bill Hermann, owner of the company, explained to the tourgoers that over the last few years, he has purchased four trailers built specifically to access the slash piles on the steep, hard-to-traverse logging roads.

"It's a hell of an investment to make in something you believe in," Ferris said. "That's what impressed me."

Hermann said his company makes about 1,000 truckloads of biomass a year, which includes both slash and bark from trees, and expects that to triple as the power-producing boilers at the Nippon and Port Townsend paper mills come online in 2012.

He said he believes there's enough slash to meet the demand.

"We can't get to a lot of it because there's not a need for it," Hermann said.

But questions regarding how much biomass there is available on the North Olympic Peninsula to produce electricity couldn't be fully answered by the foresters.

The reason: publicly funded studies on the subject, by Olympic Natural Resources Center, or ONCR, and the state Department of Natural Resources have not been completed.

Calhoun said that the ONRC study on biomass supply on the Peninsula will be finished sometime in December.

A similar study, funded by Nippon, has been completed, said Harold Norlund, manager of the company's Port Angeles mill, on Friday.

He said the study, which he can't release publicly, shows there to be more than enough supply on the Peninsula, even with biomass power operations also planned in Port Townsend, Grays Harbor County and Shelton.

Nippon expects to burn 160,000 tons of biomass -- which includes both slash and wood waste from sawmills -- per year with its proposed project, twice as much as it currently burns in its 1950s-era boiler.

Norlund said no more than a third of the fuel would come from slash.

The mill manager, who spoke enthusiastically about the project, said the new boiler would be state-of-the-art and produce 19 percent fewer pollutants even with twice as much fuel being burned.

The project's environmental impact statement, which came to the same conclusion, also said it would reduce the amount of slash being burned in forests on the Peninsula.

That practice, the study said, causes more pollution than if slash is burned in a mill's boiler.

Norlund spoke about Nippon's proposed project at the Future Energy Conference held in Seattle on Wednesday.

He said he was invited because the project would be one of the most efficient biomass power operations in the United States.

"This is cutting-edge for this area, and I think this is a great story to have in Port Angeles," Norlund said. "And we should all be proud of this."

Nippon's project would produce 20 megawatts of electricity, almost as much as produced by the two Elwha River dams. Demolition of the dams will begin in September.

Port Townsend Paper's $55 million biomass project would generate 25 megawatts of electricity.

The Port Townsend Paper Corp. has a policy against speaking to the media. Company representatives did not return phone calls requesting comment Friday.

________

Reporter Tom Callis can be reached at 360-417-3532 or at tom.callis@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: November 14. 2010 1:03AM
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