Forests may offer
The forests that surround us may hold at least part of the answer to our nation’s energy problems.
Forests blanket nearly 20 million acres of North Carolina. They support recreation, wildlife and a timber industry. They also represent a renewable resource.
One overlooked benefit has been the supply of wood waste that’s left when timber is harvested. Instead of being left to rot, the waste can fire boilers that in turn can generate electricity. As that catches on, so will the demand for it.
Power companies in the South and Pacific Northwest will drive prices for wood fuels higher as new facilities are built to produce an energy alternative to fossil fuels, according to Forest2Market, a Charlotte company that watches the prices of forest products in the Pacific Northwest and 12 Southern states.
Recently, the supply of wood chips — a byproduct of lumber production used at pulp mills and power facilities — has been dropping as residential construction drastically slows in the weak housing market. The reduced supply has raised prices by almost 10 percent since the third quarter of 2006.
The current increase in demand for wood fuels is coming from forest-products companies in the U.S. that have either updated or installed new boilers that run entirely on biomass, according to Forest2Market.
You don’t have to look far to see the system in action. Just down the road, Craven County Wood Energy has been producing electric power since 1990. A partnership owns the 48-megawatt power plant that burns some 500,000 tons of wood fuel per year. To generate the same amount of electricity would require 500,000 barrels of oil.
In the case of Craven County Wood Energy, what’s left is ash. It can be used as a soil enhancement for farmers in the region. It can also be used in road construction.
The Craven County facility produces relatively clean air emissions because it burns inherently clean fuel to start with. Wood contains virtually no sulfur, and because it burns cooler than fossil fuel, it also generates fewer nitrogen oxides.
Despite its abundance of trees, North Carolina has been slow to jump on the wood-burning power alternative. According to the National Electric Energy System, the Craven County plant is the only one of its kind in the state. California has dozens. In 2003, a 16-megawatt plant went online in the state of Washington.
In the Pacific Northwest, the dynamics are slightly different. The majority of wood chips are sawmill byproducts used by the region’s pulp mills. Generally, wood-fueled boilers are fed what is called “hog fuel.” It’s a mixture of bark and other wood waste unsuitable for pulp production.
N.C. State University is part of that effort. The university is working on a machine that can harvest forest underbrush without tearing up the forest bed. The 56,000-pound machine creates a trail, and a belt-driven vacuum sucks the ground-up cuttings and deposits them into an agricultural silage wagon hitched to the tractor. It was tested near New Bern last year, but it is still several years away from commercial production.
The demand for wood fuels throughout the country will continue to grow. U.S. utility companies are planning to build biomass-fueled power facilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and avoid the rising costs of oil. These facilities should come online in the next two to four years, which will further increase competition for wood chips. That may create a growing market in North Carolina.