Wood Heat Stakeholders Gather, Talk Opportunities and Urgency at Heating the Midwest

(Article by Tim Portz, Forge Content)

Heating the Midwest, an annual conversation and roundtable about growing the role of wood heat in the Upper Midwest was held last week at the Black Bear Convention Center in Carlton, Minnesota.

Kicking off the Heating the Midwest conference. (L to R: Brian Brashaw, Program Manager, Forest Products Laboratory; Tim Portz, Executive Director, Pellet Fuels Institute; Gregg Mast, Executive Director, Clean Energy Economy MN)

This year’s conversation carried an increased sense of urgency with the news of the closure of three large biomass power plants in Minnesota on everyone’s minds. Benson Power in western Minnesota and Laurentian Energy Authority’s two plants located in Hibbing and Virginia will be shutdown, and with their closure the demand for nearly 500,000 green tons of woody biomass in the area will disappear.

Set against that backdrop, this year’s Heating the Midwest agenda worked to highlight wood biomass thermal deployments that work despite an economic environment of historically low fossil fuel prices while also looking toward projects with a realistic chance at gaining traction and stepping into the void created by the Benson and Laurentian Energy closures.

“The forest products industry is absolutely vital to the rural economies of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan,” said Brian Brashaw, a longtime Heating the Midwest steering committee member and Program Manager for the USDA Forest Products Laboratory. “A healthy forest products sector adds value to woody biomass of all sorts and when demand for lower value material goes away, it reverberates throughout the supply chain.  Healthy forests and industry need markets for all harvest products.”

Brashaw’s comments were supported on Thursday morning when Scott Dane, the Executive Director of the Associated Contract Loggers & Truckers of Minnesota took the stage. For Dane and his membership, these plant closures will significantly reduce the available work, straining a vital piece of the forest products supply chain.

Conference participants on tour. Sawmill residues seen here are being used for biomass heating.

For an audience hungry for some good news, a highlight of the conference was a joint presentation delivered by Terry Nanti the General Manager at Duluth Energy Systems and Lee Torrens, President of Enysn Fuels, Inc. The presentation walked the audience through the decision making process that Duluth Energy Systems used to make a decision to transition the city-owned steam plant to a biomass-based feedstock. As part of a broader modernization effort, the city is planning to begin burning Enysn’s renewable fuel oil (RFO) product. While the first volumes of RFO burned at Duluth Energy will be manufactured at Ensyn Fuel’s refinery in Canada, Torrens delighted the audience by expressing his continued interest in Minnesota as a potential site for Ensyn’s first U.S.-based production site.

“Our region is blessed with abundant supplies of renewable biomass from our fields and forests,” said Gregg Mast, executive director of Clean Energy Economy Minnesota. “Identifying market applications for these materials is critical for retaining and expanding supply chain jobs and spurring rural economic development.” Throughout the event, Brashaw and other longtime Heating the Midwest steering committee members asked the audience to join the conversation about what Heating the Midwest should be dedicating its time and energy to. A common theme from attendees was that while difficult, it was imperative to take the message of modern wood heat to a new audience of city planners, county officials, state policy makers and architects and engineers.

The conference also featured a biomass heating tour in Northeast Minnesota, making important connections between resource supply from harvesting and manufacturing residues and modern, efficient and clean heating systems.  Recently installed biomass heating installations at the Northeast Regional Corrections Center and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa were featured.

 

Southern Exposure: Long-Term Field Testing of Wood Protectants

When researchers are looking to evaluate the performance of wood protectants, the harsher the environment the better. Which is why Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) researchers put specimens to the test in the Harrison Experimental Forest (HEF) in Saucier, Mississippi, and have been doing so for 80 years.

Generations of FPL researchers have used the HEF field site for sub-tropical field testing. Here Oscar Blew is rating posts at the HEF (1950’s).

Located about 35 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico, this sub-tropical field site receives about 60 inches of rainfall a year and has a mean temperature of 68 degrees Fahrenheit. The wood decay hazard in this area is rated “severe” according to the American Wood Protection Association Use Class Rating System and there is significant subterranean termite activity. When in ground contact, untreated wood rarely lasts 12 months in the HEF, to which researchers respond “challenge accepted.” Continue reading

Blast Testing, Take Two! An Update on CLT Blast Test Research

The following is an update to a previous LabNotes post.  The updated version was recently featured on the USDA and Forest Service blogs:

All three structures remained standing after the testing – even tests designed to take the structures well beyond their design intent. (Photo courtesy of Air Force Civil Engineering Center AFCEC, Tyndall Air Force Base)

At the USDA Forest Service’s Forest Products Laboratory (FPL), researchers sometimes get a little destructive. They bend and break wood samples of all sizes, and even shoot lumber out of a cannon at 100 miles per hour.

But explosions? That’s a bit out of their wheelhouse. Not that wood can’t handle it. Particularly when it’s used in engineered products like cross-laminated timber, or CLT, which FPL researchers have studied from many angles, including fire performance, use in earthquake-prone regions, and the effects of moisture on CLT. Made of alternating layers of dried lumber boards stacked at 90-degree angles, CLT is exceptionally strong and stable and can be used as walls, roofs, and floors in mid-rise buildings. Continue reading

Wood Packaging Supports Healthy Forests and Strong Communities

The National Wooden Pallet and Container Association (NWPCA) has released “Wood Packaging Supports Healthy Forests and Strong Communities,” a video that puts a spotlight on the vital role wood packaging plays in our communities.

Researchers from the Forest Products Laboratory have partnered with the NWPCA for several years, and are currently working with them to develop life cycle assessments for wood pallets.

Wooden pallets used for shipping purposes in the United States (NWPCA 2016).

NWPCA collaborated with leading forest conservation organizations to produce this video. Participating in this project were Tom Martin, President and CEO, The American Forest Foundation; Larry Selzer, President and CEO, The Conservation Fund; Jay Farrell, Executive Director, The National Association of State Foresters; Carlton Owen, President and CEO, U.S. Endowment for Forestry & Communities; and Vicki Christiansen, Interim Chief, U.S. Forest Service.

“We’re proud of the work of our members in supporting the missions of these conservation organizations, providing economic and employment opportunities in rural communities, and improving the health of our nation’s forests,” said Brent McClendon, CAE, National Wooden Pallet and Container Association (NWPCA) President and CEO.

“The wood packaging industry is a critical player in advancing the health of our forests because they use the small diameter wood for making pallets that cannot be used in higher end products,” stated, Carlton Owen, President & CEO, U.S. Endowment for Forestry & Communities. “Without markets for that low value material, we can’t move our forests to a healthier, more resilient condition.”

The 3-minute video is a project of Nature’s Packaging®, a North American initiative to promote the use of wood-based packaging to users seeking sustainable, responsible and economical packaging solutions.

Omnibus Includes Fire Funding Fix for U.S. Forest Service

The following is a press release from USDA:

(Washington, D.C., March 23, 2018) – U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue today expressed his appreciation for the work of Congress to find a bipartisan fix for the way the U.S. Forest Service is funded for fighting wildfires. Secretary Perdue had advocated for the change since taking office in April 2017. Congress included the solution in the FY 2018 Omnibus Spending Package, which has been signed into law by President Donald J. Trump.

“The fire funding fix, which has been sought for decades, is an important inclusion in the omnibus spending bill and I commend Congress for addressing the issue,” said Secretary Perdue. “Improving the way we fund wildfire suppression will help us better manage our forests. If we ensure that we have adequate resources for forest management, we can mitigate the frequency of wildfires and severity of future fire seasons. I thank Congressional leaders, with whom I’ve frequently discussed this issue.”

The solution included in the omnibus provides a new funding structure from FY2020 through FY2027. Beginning in FY2020, $2.25 billion of new budget authority is available to USDA and the Department of the Interior. The budget authority increases by $100 million each year, ending at $2.95 billion in new budget authority by FY2027. For the duration of the 8-year fix, the fire suppression account will be funded at the FY 2015 President’s Budget request – $1.011 billion. If funding in the cap is used, the Secretary of Agriculture must submit a report to Congress documenting aspects of fire season, such as decision-making and cost drivers, that led to the expenditures. The omnibus includes a 2-year extension of Secure Rural Schools, providing provide rural counties approximately $200 million more per year. It also provides Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act Reauthorization. The legislation also includes seven important forest management reforms, including:

  • Categorical Exclusion for Wildfire Resilience Projects
  • Healthy Forest Restoration Act inclusion of Fire and Fuel Breaks
  • 20-year Stewardship contracts
  • Cottonwood Reform
  • Fire Hazard Mapping Initiative
  • Fuels Management for Protection of Electric Transmission Lines
  • Good Neighbor Authority Road Amendment

Until the funding solution was achieved, the fire suppression portion of the USFS budget was funded at a rolling ten-year average of appropriations, while the overall USFS budget remained relatively flat. Because fire seasons are longer and conditions are worse, the ten-year rolling fire suppression budget average kept rising, consuming a greater percentage of the total Forest Service budget each year. This increase forced the agency to take funds from prevention programs to cover fire suppression costs. In addition, hunting, fishing, and other recreational programs were cut to cover the costs of fire suppression.

Background:

Last year, wildland fire suppression costs exceeded $2.5 billion, making it the most expensive year on record. The USFS confronted wildland fires last summer that started in the Southeast and continued through the year in the Southwest, Pacific Northwest, Intermountain West and Pacific Northwest. At peak season, more than 28,000 personnel were dispatched to fires, along with aircraft and other emergency response resources. Since taking office, Secretary Perdue has worked diligently to address the issue and ensure both fire suppression and prevention efforts receive the proper funding they need.

  • September 8, 2017: Secretary Perdue Calls on Congress to Fix Forest Service Fire Funding Problem
  • September 14, 2017: Secretary Perdue Renews Call for Congress to Fix “Fire Borrowing” Problem after Wildland Fire Suppression Costs Exceed $2 Billion
  • September 26, 2017: Secretary Perdue Hosts U.S. Senators for 2017 Fire Briefing
  • November 1, 2017: Secretary Perdue Issues Statement on House Passage of Resilient Federal Forests Act
  • In 2017, Secretary Perdue traveled to multiple areas of the country besieged by wildfires to assess damage, and to discuss the fire funding issue at various roundtables:
    • Secretary Perdue visited Montana with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke near the end of August 2017, and received an assessment from Forest Service personnel on the ground at the Lolo Peak Fire.
    • In October 2017, Secretary Perdue visited the Cherokee National Forest to learn of damage caused by wildfires in 2016 and discuss the fire funding issue at a roundtable with USFS employees.
    • Last month, Secretary Perdue discussed the 2017 wildfire season while touring damage from the Creek Fire , that ravaged Los Angeles County last December.

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