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Biomass, Wood Pellets, and Maine's Economy

Boralex - Ashland, Maine - Photograph courtesy of NEPCO

Wikipedia describe woody biomass as:

"Biomass is biological material derived from living, or recently living organisms. In the context of biomass as a resource for making energy, it most often refers to plants or plant-based materials which is not used for food or feed, and are specifically called lignocellulosic biomass. Wood remains the largest biomass energy source to date; examples include forest residues (such as dead trees, branches and tree stumps), yard clippings, wood chips and even municipal solid waste."

When people think of timber harvesting, they usually think about producing material for the lumber mills, specialty mills, and the paper industry. The high value part of the tree is the tree trunk in the softwood species and is used mainly to produce lumber for the building trade. Hardwood trees can be converted into lumber and other wood products. So it is true that a lot of this material does go to these industries. The leftover material from a timber harvest is the treetops, remnants, and the smaller trees that are not merchantable. The smaller trees are usually less than six inches in diameter at breast height. Trees can also be defective and unusable like a softwood tree with big limbs all the way down the trunk.

Biomass, also known as hog fuel, is used to convert the energy stored in the material to electricity. This is done by heating water to steam using the biomass and then using the steam to drive turbines that produce electricity. This helps Maine's economy grow. If you use oil to do this, the profits from producing the oil goes to southern refineries and the countries producing the oil like Mexico, Peru, Saudi Arabia, etc. Biomass is chipped or put through a grinder by specialty companies or by logging companies that own their own chippers. This produces employment for the people that do the chipping, the truck drivers hauling the chips, and other support personnel. The land owner gets an added-value product that produces more income from the timber harvest. Twenty five percent of the volume of the trees can be added to the amount of material utilized from the harvest. If you remove 1000 tons of wood products, another 250 tons of biomass can be produced. Trees are a renewable resource and will grow again to repeat the process.

Wood pellets come from a renewable resource grown here in Maine. The companies that produce wood pellets consider the products used to produce the materials as biomass. Most don't use leftover material from timber harvests; they use hardwood and softwood logs or chips derived from them. They also use clean sawdust and wood waste from mills. They don't usually use bark, so smaller material such as branches and small diameter trees are excluded in the pellet making process. Different companies have different processes so investigate what each company does. That will help you determine which pellet you want to use. Most of the wood pellets burn cleaner than firewood, but you still have to clean your chimney and stove. Ash and other materials still builds up in chimneys and the stoves.

Using wood pellets to heat your house has many benefits. It can cut your heating bill in half or at least substantially reduces it. It also benefits the local economy. The money you saved on heating costs is spent locally here in Maine, or at least the United States, hopefully. Wood pellets produced in Maine helps our local economy through employment, taxes, and the monies spent by people working in these industries. Wood pellets are considered carbon neutral. This means that the carbon released in the burning process equals the carbon extracted from the air by the tree. Burning oil and coal just releases more carbon into the atmosphere that was stored by trees and plants long ago.

The use of biomass and the production of wood pellets is a win-win situation for Maine and it's people. Policies should encourage the use of these materials and the conversion of oil dependent heating and energy production facilities to wood as the fuel source. This will benefit Maine in many ways and also benefit the forest industry. All of this must be balanced with responsible harvesting methods. The proper use of best management practices (BMPs) must be employed during the harvesting phase. This will help with erosion problems, water quality, and habitat protection for our animal friends. Pollution controls must be monitored with the larger plants producing electricity and enforced. Research should continue to minimize the impact to the environment. A country as great as ours should be able to come up with solutions to keep minimizing the effects of burning wood and make wood a viable energy source far into the future. Let's keep wood a large of part of Maine's economy and future.

Sources cited:

The State of Wood Biomass Energy in Maine by Rachel Baron, Blair Braverman, and Francis Gassert

Morris Logging, Shirbey Morris - Owner

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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