Biochar groups confident despite study of forest biomass
According to economists at Oregon State University, forest biomass is not an economically feasible producer of jobs for rural development. Biochar groups working in Douglas County disagree, however.
The researchers, working through OSU’s College of Forestry, evaluated the costs of collecting, transporting and processing biomass from timber harvest sites to 65 potential processing facility locations near current wood product operations and found it would be very labor intensive and expensive.
“From a strictly market feasibility perspective, it isn’t all that likely that these facilities will be located in remote, struggling rural communities without targeted subsidies or support,” lead researcher Mindy Crandall said.
OSU spokesman Nick Houtman said the future feasibility of developing biomass may depend on public investments or new markets. He added that the study looked into obtaining biomass from restoration or thinning projects, but “the additional supply does little to change the economic feasibility of processing facilities.”
Kelpie Wilson of the consulting company Wilson Biochar Associates, however, said there is more than one way to create rural employment using biomass that consists of the branches and treetops left after harvest.
“The study is correct, but there are other ways to provide jobs in the woods. There are other ways of processing the material that doesn’t involve bringing it to a central depot,” Wilson said. Instead of burning the biomass as waste or paying the high costs of piling, chipping and hauling the biomass, converting it into charcoal as biochar could be done on site, providing jobs in the forest.
“Instead of getting nothing but smoke, we can end up with this charcoal product which is valuable left on ground where it is and it’s also valuable if you can scoop it up and sell it,” Wilson said, adding that the price of biochar is between 25 cents and $1 per pound.
As one of the researchers who contributed to the Waste to Wisdom project, a $5 million study funded by the Department of Energy, Wilson explored processing biomass on the harvest site to create biochar, briquettes and concentrated wood products that are lighter and easier to transport. She also helped with the Drew Veg Biochar Project and the Elk Creek Restoration Project through the Umpqua Biochar Education Team.
South Umpqua Rural Community Partnership President Stan Petrowski said he believes converting biomass into biochar can be done at harvest sites in Douglas County, which would indeed create local jobs.
As part of SURC, UBET is experimenting with ways to turn biochar production into a family wage business.
“We’re exploring the alternatives to boots on the ground,” Petrowski said. “If it’s going to be commercially viable for small businesses, we’ve got to be able to produce equipment that is affordable and they’ve got to be able to make a living. This is a tall order but the alternative is waste, which just is not ethically acceptable to UBET or to us as an organization. We think char is a great tool to produce.”
Petrowski said in parts of the world he’s seen women carry bundles of sticks on their heads for miles so they can cook their food and heat water, so he thinks wasting dozens of slash piles in Oregon is unconscionable.
OSU Extension Horticultural Agent Steve Renquist said in-forest biochar production would reduce costs, but there are other factors that need to be addressed.
“One of the problems the foresters face is that waste product is scattered all over the place. There’s no way to convert it in place and sell the product because there’s no set market place for anything like that,” Renquist said. “If they can demonstrate that particular product has demand by the consumer to use it in other locations, then of course it could build up some momentum, but it’s still at the experimental stage right now.”
A market currently exists for biochar, as farmers could use it as a soil amendment, fisheries could use it to filter urban runoff to protect fish, and sewage facilities could use it to address waste and odors, but the existing market has yet to reach the scale needed to be economically feasible.
“Probably what would happen is that a biochar producer would pay a nominal fee to the Bureau of Land Management or the Forest Service or the industry for the biomass that would be offset by the disposal costs, and the small business would be able to break even as far as production is concerned,” Petrowski said.