Residues to Riches: Times have changed
Biomass is not free, but we do get a lot more energy out of it than we put in.
Written by Mark Ryans
There is no doubt that the use of forest biomass is expanding across Canada. I have been researching forest biomass since 1978, albeit on an on-and-off basis as forest bioenergy has been a hot-and-cold topic for the forest industry over the past 30 years. However, if you had asked in 2005 whether my organization would have a national program on forest feedstocks in 2008 involving over 10 research staff and activities in almost every corner of Canada, I would have said that you were smoking some other type of biomass.
|With only 3% of the energy value of chips required to collect, process, and haul roadside biomass, the energy balance of slash harvesting looks pretty good.
Among all the doom-and-gloom scenarios and the wide-spread structural changes that the forest industry is going through, there are a few bright spots. One fact is that the forest industry is well positioned within an emerging bioeconomy, and it is already a leader in reducing carbon emissions and producing green power. Today, the immediate use of biomass is to produce heat and power, but forest biorefineries are the way of the future. These will take many forms, large and small, but a pulp and paper mill is an ideal complex to produce not only electricity, steam, and hot water for heating, but also chemicals and liquid transportation fuels.
Unfortunately, change is usually accompanied by pain, or at least a more complicated business environment. The conventional sources of low-cost, homogeneous hog fuel have dried up, caused by reduced shifts, shutdowns, or permanent closures of local sawmills. Moreover, woodrooms are a thing of the past at most pulp mills. Therefore, simple hog-fuel supply chains, currently comprising bark from a sawmill to a pulp mill’s power boiler will, for the most part, change to a more heterogeneous and complex forest-origin supply.
The past situation of one-on-one business relationships or ownership of the “waste” within the same company will change to multiple sources of sawmill and forest-origin biomass, involving numerous forest contractors and locations. The need for an all-season supply will put similar constraints on the biomass supply business that we are accustomed to in our conventional forest operations. New and decades-old forest management issues will have to be addressed, such as ownership of residues, impacts on forest productivity, etc. In many jurisdictions, new business relationships will need to be established.
The main purpose of this column is to discuss the development of efficient supply chains for forest-origin biomass. Before getting into the details, we need to address two common myths regarding forest biomass.
Myth #1. It takes more energy to deliver forest biomass than it is worth.
I remember a particular criticism by Reed Inc’s VP of our ENFOR-funded projects at one of the old Canadian Pulp and Paper Association (CPPA) woodlands conventions. From mentioning ENFOR, Reed, and CPPA, some of the readership will be able to deduce that this was many years ago during the first oil crisis. It was also a very troubling time for world economies and the Canadian forest industry. His criticism was, “Why would we want to use a litre of fuel that we want and need to deliver something (biomass) that we don’t want and don’t need?” Times have changed, and the value of forest biomass is changing rapidly; however, it is still a common belief that it takes more energy to deliver forest biomass than it is worth. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Through our studies and energy balance assessments with Feric’s BiOS model, we can determine the litres of fuel consumed to deliver a dry tonne of hogged biomass from roadside residues. The balance is quite dramatic; the energy value in the biomass is 30 to 40 times the energy content of the total fuel consumed in the pre-piling, chipping, and trucking.
Myth #2: Biomass is free.
This is another common perception, especially to prospective bio-ventures from outside the forestry business. They believe that there is a lot of biomass around, virtually free, and ripe for the picking. It is true that roadside residues are an attractive biomass-supply option, but there has already been an investment in bringing them to roadside, and if they are to be used efficiently, more care must be given to their handling.
Roadside residues must also be consolidated (pre-piled) to improve the efficiency of the comminution phase. To facilitate transportation, handling, and use, residues must be chipped at roadside and then hauled a long distance to the plant. Delivered costs of $50 to $60 per oven-dry tonne will be typical, dictated primarily by travel distance. Other costs must also be considered such as forest management charges, road use and maintenance, etc.
This brings us to the need to develop more efficient supply chains for the harvest and delivery of forest biomass. At the present time, most operations are experimental in nature and costs should decrease based on experience. However, I would also argue that the price of forest-origin biomass may rise: a simple matter of supply and demand. There are two other factors. First, the cost of biomass is primarily determined by travel distance, and if the volume rises dramatically, we will have to go further to get it. Second, current operations are leaving behind the more difficult and smaller blocks where the costs would be higher to recover the biomass. If more volume is needed, these blocks will have to be accessed.
10 keys to success
Feric considers the following 10 factors to be the cornerstones of an efficient supply system for forest biomass.
I will deal with these factors in detail in further issues. In closing, I stress that barring a dramatic rise in the value of forest biomass, the emerging forest-based bioeconomy will continue to rely on a strong and integrated primary forest industry.
- The mill determines the types of biomass that can be used, and in the end, the overall efficiency of the process
- Use simple and flexible supply systems
- Choose and tailor equipment for the job of recovering forest biomass
- The comminution-truck interface is a key balance point
- Consider your trucking options
- Pre-pile to improve efficiency and value
- Minimize storage of comminuted biomass
- Plan for buffer capacity in the system, and use it to increase value
- Put a management system in place to monitor and reward energy value
- Last but not least, integrate conventional harvesting practices with the residue recovery operation
Mark Ryans is with FPInnovations – Feric Division. He can be reached at
. This column will be a regular feature in Canadian Biomass.