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Many forests in the Western United States are overgrown, which can make wildfires more destructive. To combat this, the U.S. Forest Service regularly pays for areas to be trimmed of small trees and brush, offsetting their costs through the sale of the resulting scrap. However, this scrap is low-value and hard to sell. What can't be sold is often piled and burned.
But a solution is being tested in John Day, a timber town in eastern Oregon flanked on the north and south by the Malheur National Forest. In mid-2019, it will add a new type of operation: the first commercial-scale torrefaction plant in the country. By turning wood scraps into a substitute for coal, this new plant could potentially provide energy, jobs, and even environmental benefits — if it can become economically viable.
The roughly $15 million plant, called Restoration Fuels, is set to open inside a lumber mill. There, wood from existing fire management and thinning projects will be chipped and fed into a kiln, where it will be roasted in a process similar to making charcoal. What emerges is lighter, more brittle, and easily compacted into briquettes, which can be burned as a coal substitute in existing power plants.
Torrefaction and biomass energy are not new ideas, but they've received more attention as states seek sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels.
"You can't grow more coal in any time you and I can think about, but we can grow trees," says Carlton Owen, CEO of the nonprofit U.S. Endowment for Forestry & Communities, the majority owner in this new venture. Both Restoration Fuels and the company managing it, Oregon Torrefaction, are creations of the endowment.
The endowment hopes that by giving sawmills and buyers a use for this natural scrap material, they can increase demand, which would in turn make it easier for the U.S. Forest Service to make its money back and give it the funds to pay for more wildfire-prevention thinning.
Unlike wind and solar but like fossil fuels, torrefied material and biomass do produce carbon emissions, though this could ideally be offset by the carbon dioxide sucked up by the trees and plants used for next year's fuel, making the process — at least in theory — carbon neutral.
This is in line with a decision made in early 2018 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about nationwide biomass use, though some scientists and environmental groups have disagreed, saying the offset could take decades or hundreds of years.
That said, if the John Day plant didn't burn the wood, it would likely still produce emissions through forest fires or controlled burns, Owen says. "So do you burn the wood and put it into the atmosphere without controls, or do you put it through a system where you get an economic benefit out of it?"
Still, torrefied fuel has yet to find its place in the market. Christopher Hopkins, a research associate at North Carolina State University, says the fracking boom's abundant natural gas has dampened torrefaction's viability as an energy source. Natural gas can also be burned in existing coal power plants and is far cheaper.
"I think the day for torrefaction, at least as far as I can tell, came and went," says Hopkins, who thinks it is more viable as a way to produce biochar, which can be added to soils to increase their productivity and could help sequester carbon.
The torrefaction energy market also suffers from what Dan Ciolkosz, a researcher at Penn State University, described as a kind of catch-22.
"We go to a power plant and say, 'How'd you like to buy some torrefied pellets for your power plant?' And they look around and say, 'I don't see any torrefied pellet producers,'" says Ciolkosz. "So we go out to the forest products industry and say 'Hey, how about if you produce some torrefied pellets?' and they say, 'Well, I don't see anybody buying them.'"
Owen says the endowment, which is providing funding from earnings on a onetime $200 million settlement that came from the Softwood Lumber Agreement between the U.S. and Canadian governments, can take the risk that a private company wouldn't and hopefully will inspire other producers to step in eventually.
"We're making a big, audacious bet, but we're doing it because we believe someone has to step up," says Owen.
Although they haven't yet found a buyer for the product, Owen says they're currently pursuing contracts in Japan, which is also trying to wean itself off coal power.
Furthermore, they hope that social and environmental benefits inherent in their particular setup might attract subsidies or incentives from lawmakers, which could be critical in maintaining the bottom line.
"You need that economic viability in order for it to actually make it in the long run," says Ciolkosz. "I think torrefaction really has that opportunity. If not right now, then really soon."
James Gaines is a freelance science journalist living in Seattle.