As many as 70 local officials, foresters and the just plain curious participated in tours of biomass operations in and near Port Angeles on Wednesday, Nov. 10. The event was sponsored by the North Olympic Chapter of the Society of American Foresters, which is working to provide more information on the availability of biomass to fuel the co-generation plants now under consideration in Clallam and Jefferson counties. Air quality issues weren’t on the agenda, with the presentations focusing on the availability of biomass and the sustainability of the resource. Sequim Gazette photos by Mark Couhig
by MARK ST.J. COUHIG
With three new biomass energy projects proposed, under construction or operating on the peninsula, local officials, foresters and concerned members of the public want to learn more about their potential impact on the local economy and environment.
Some of those answers may be available in as little as two weeks when the University of Washington releases the results of a study conducted to determine the local availability of biomass to fuel these projects.
John Calhoun, director of the Olympic Natural Resources Center in Forks, says the new report should shed considerable light on the economic and ecological issues attached to biomass energy production. ONRC is one of the University of Washington's School of Forest Resources interdisciplinary research and education centers.
The new report will contain substantial data on the availability of biomass in a five-county area, including Clallam and Jefferson counties. Calhoun's team also is studying the effect on forests of collecting biomass, including its impact on those creatures that make their home in downed wood.
"The most serious issue is retaining the productivity of the soil," Calhoun said. "How much can be taken? How much should be left? We're doing some specific research on that."
Calhoun said that if they are built, the three biomass projects - one at the Forks middle and high school, one at the Nippon Mill in Port Angeles and the third at the Port Townsend Paper mill - will utilize a substantial amount of biomass.
The wisdom of these plans still is being debated.
In the affirmative
Proponents of biomass utilization say there are several factors that favor its use, including government incentives to utilize greater amounts of renewable energy. They also cite the jobs that would be created, saying they are particularly important in today's uncertain economic times.
The revenues from the sale of the biomass would be relatively small when compared to lumber and wood chips, but still significant.
Martha Hurd, a retired forester and member of the Society of American Foresters, said biomass technology is further along than that of other renewable resources, including technologies that harness the power of the wind and tides.
Bill Hermann's Hermann Brothers Logging & Construction company is introducing new technology to improve the efficiency of biomass harvesting. Regarding the availability of sufficient amounts of biomass, Hermann said there is a very specific bottom line: The number and size of the biomass plants that will be built will be determined by the amount of available fuel.
Hermann said he has 18 employees involved in the biomass part of his business. If the new generators are built, that number could rise to perhaps 50. "If they don't open the co-generation plants, we're probably gathering as much as we will," he said. "That's about 10 percent of the available biomass."
While the bulk of the available material is found in lands west of Lake Crescent, Hermann said 20 percent is located in the Port Angeles-Sequim corridor. Because of its proximity to the mills and because "it's mostly Douglas-fir," this biomass is more highly sought, he said.
Hermann is an outspoken fan of biomass recovery, saying that biomass left behind otherwise will be left in piles. "The piles will be there," he said. "Either we'll use it or we won't. Trees are the only way to really store solar energy," he said.
Hermann also said removing the biomass is good forestry practice. "It gets that ground uncovered," thereby enhancing the ability of the land to grow new trees.
Jeff Robb, Port of Port Angeles executive director, said that while the commissioners haven't issued a formal vote, "the port clearly supports the use of co-generation. We testified at the planning commission public hearing in support."
Robb said the port's mission includes supporting activities and business decisions that promote economic growth. "This will create 20 to 30 jobs - good, family-wage jobs," Robb said. "It will also make Nippon that much more viable."
Questions requiring answers
Bob Lynette, co-chairman of the North Olympic Group of the Sierra Club, remains unconvinced, saying, "We don't know if there is enough biomass to power all the plants that have been proposed. (We must) be sure that we leave enough on the forest floor to provide nutrients for future generations of trees. The Department of Natural Resources is doing a study to see how much woody biomass is out there, but even when that study is complete, there is still the issue of how much should be left to nourish future generations of trees. So no, I am not convinced."
Lynette said, "The wood on the ground that nourishes future generations takes 25 to 60 years to degenerate and give up its nutrients, so only a comparison of a plot where the wood was removed to the third or fourth generation of growth and decay would be a fair test."
While air quality wasn't on the agenda for the recent biomass tour, Lynette said real concerns remain.
"I know that many people question whether global warming is real, but the scientific community is pretty convinced that it is real and very serious," Lynette said.
"So I question whether it is good policy for our children and future generations everywhere to be starting new power plants that emit lots of carbon dioxide that makes the problem worse."
Lynette said the Sierra Club isn't opposed to the plants but wants certain questions answered before they are fired up. A recent Sierra Club position paper spells out eight concerns, including "That such proposed plants are sited in appropriate locations to minimize traffic, noise, smell, light pollution and visual impacts."
Lynette said he was the owner of the largest renewable energy consulting company in the U.S. from 1979-1995 and served as an industry consultant until his retirement three years ago.
Reach Mark Couhig at firstname.lastname@example.org.