Can the Ethanol Industry Help Prevent Forest Fires

Using forest thinnings as an ethanol feedstock could contribute to fire prevention and forest health
By Tom Bryan | September 01, 2002
Responding to the "worst year of wildfires on record," President Bush last month outlined an initiative - consistent with the National Fire Plan - that would allow increased thinning of forests, especially in high risk, wildland-urban interface areas where wildfires threaten communities.

The White House plan, coupled with growing industry confidence in the cellulosic conversion process, has forest service officials and biofuels experts alike considering the possibilities of utilizing forest waste as an ethanol feedstock. Bush's plan, some say, would nudge the process a step closer toward economic viability.

Plan would suspend existing legal barriers
The recently adopted National Fire Plan calls for the timely removal of hazardous fuels from forests and the development of new markets for these materials in order to make the process profitable. The White House plan, which still needs government approval, would suspend the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in 10 million acres of fire-prone forests to speed the removal of "dangerous underbrush and dead trees that serve as fuel in spreading wildfires." The president's plan would streamline the existing processes by removing several legally imposed requirements that, according to the Bush Administration, have delayed or postponed thinning projects in the past.

Although some environmentalists and conservationists are voicing opposition to the plan, biomass experts say the president's initiative could free up a portion of an estimated 5 billion tons of wood-waste for energy use. Assuming that converting this material into ethanol will eventually be commercially viable, important questions remain: How much is out there? Is it accessible? How would it be collected? And where would the ethanol plants be located?

Although a large-scale cellulose-to-ethanol plant has not yet been proven commercially viable, industry experts are beginning to assess questions pertaining to the collection, transportation and availability of forest thinnings as an ethanol feedstock. The numbers, although not well assessed, look promising.

What are forest thinnings?
Generally speaking, forest thinnings are defined as small diameter trees, fallen branches and other woody debris that results from natural forest processes. The material left behind after logging - such as stumps, branches woody debris, etc. - is referred to as "residue," and is often distinguished from forest thinnings.

Once dry, these materials can become highly flammable and very hazardous. It is generally accepted that removing forest thinnings can help reduce the risk of wildfire.

However, said Jerry Payne, U.S. Forest Service Southwest Region Biomass Utilization Coordinator in Albuquerque, N.M., it is often difficult to precisely define forest thinnings because each forest may require a unique "prescription."

"The material removed from a forest is really determined on a project-by-project basis," Payne told EPM. "Ideally, it would be determined cooperatively by the agencies and communities involved with the removal. We're not trying to set a standard, for example, saying all trees under a 10-inch diameter are considered forest thinnings available for energy use. Rather, what is more important to us is that we define the goal of a project in a specific area, transforming that area from some dangerous existing condition to a safer prescribed condition."

Payne explained that fires typically spread in two ways: ground to crown, and crown to crown. Mechanical thinning usually attempts to decrease the fuel load between healthy trees, in order to stop fires from spreading.

"With forest thinning procedures, we are removing debris, undergrowth and small-diameter trees in order to create spaces between larger trees that disrupts the flow of fire, " he said. "We know that fires, at given wind speeds, are less able to jump from one tree to another when trees are spaced properly. . . Having less (material) between trees is incredibly important to fire prevention."

How much is out there?
As much as 5 billion tons of forest thinnings could be available nationwide, Payne estimated, but coming up with accurate nationwide numbers has not yet been accomplished.

Scott Haase, a Denver-based consultant with McNeil Technologies, said it is difficult to say exactly how many tons of forest thinnings could be available as an energy feedstock.

"We typically gather those numbers from local fire managers (and other forest service officials)," Haase said. "It's a challenge to get the big picture."

McNeil Technologies, a consulting firm with offices in Virginia, Colorado and Seattle, is working with the Colorado Governor's Office of Energy Management and Conservation (OEMC), which received a $74,000 grant recently from the U.S. Forest Service for a project to help reduce the risk of fire in Colorado's forests.

Colorado's Biomass Energy Project will assess potential uses and markets for small-diameter wood waste, referring to the material as "an unused byproduct of the forest restoration process." Although the project is not ethanol related (the state is more interested in power generation), it does display the potential energy value of forest thinnings.

"To reduce the risk of fire, it is essential that hazardous fuel be removed from our forests," said Colorado Gov. Bill Owens. "The forest restoration project aims to generate thousands of tons of small-diameter wood each year."

State projects, like the one in Colorado, are beginning to provide the "big picture" view of the availability of forest thinnings nationwide. Similar projects in South Dakota, California, Washington and Oregon are providing insight as well. Furthermore, government agencies and private companies are together currently working on assessments that will help us better understand how much forest waste is available nationwide.

Harvesting thinnings
There's no easy way for mechanical removal of forest thinnings. The job is typically accomplished using chain saws, wood chippers and logging equipment. In the case of ethanol production, the material would be loaded onto trucks and taken to a central location for processing. There are also large mechanical harvesting machines that are able to clutch trees and underbrush, shear the material off, and load it onto trucks. In this process, larger logs and branches are separated from the thinnings for commercial purposes.

Aside from the conversion challenges, harvest and transportation is the next largest economic hurdle in front of forest thinnings-to-ethanol production. The catch, Payne says, is that much of this material is being removed (or burned) from the forests anyway, at a cost to the government.

"Were already paying to have it harvested," he said. "The current practice is to harvest this material and pile it up for safe burning."

Modular ethanol plants?
Modular ethanol plants would most likely be used to process forest thinnings, Payne said. The modular plants, which at least two U.S. companies say they can build, would be set up in the middle of a forested area slated for heavy thinning. The mobile facility might produce 5, even 10 mmgy, experts say.

Colorado-based Power Energy Fuels reportedly holds the rights to a modular ethanol plant that can process 12,000 gallons per day. Other design-build firms would likely provide similar technology.

"Support and interest is building," Payne said. "I expect that a whole lot more support for these projects will surface in the next year or two."

There is currently some $17 million available for removing hazardous fuels from forests on private lands, and three to four times that is available for the same purposes on public lands. But long term contracts are still needed to attract private industry to the game, Payne said.

One such program is called the "Strategy for Stewardship," and it is being offered in Arizona and New Mexico to demonstrate alternative energy generation with biomass. Other projects are being considered nationwide.

Stewardship Contracts for treatment of the wildland-urban interface is a new use of an existing pilot program. The contracts allow ten years of material to be put under contract to a company that needs to make large investments. The contracts allow the Forest Service to lower costs by trading goods (forest waste, small trees, etc.) for services (thinning the forest to protect communities at risk.)

To relieve environmental fears about the project, Payne said, Forest Service employees have been meeting with groups and individuals to hear concerns and discuss options.

"They have been trying to explain the vision of Stewardship Contracting relating to wildland-urban interface projects, and tweaking the proposals to mitigate concerns," Payne explained.

With the input of the local communities, local environmental groups, local industries and the local forest officials, the existing condition would be reviewed. Together, thinning and or restoration work to be completed would be determined.

"What needs to be removed would be proposed locally," Payne said. "The exact approach and method of removal, sale, and administration would be left to the local (group)."

The project would be considered a pilot project and would require monitoring of fire risk achieved, biological impact to the forest and habitat, and the economic impacts.

"Right now, we're just trying to get something positive started," Payne said.