Are Biomass Incinerators Gobbling Up Firewood?

[While we are certainly not advocating for any form of burning, including firewood, it's interesting how the biomass industry competes with itself. -Ed.]

- by Anna Simet, October 03, 2014, Biomass Magazine

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"270","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"183","style":"line-height: 20.6719989776611px; width: 275px; height: 183px; margin: 3px 10px; float: left;","width":"275"}}]]Last week, I blogged about the pellet availability situation in the Northeast (the “shortage” last year, what might happen this year, etc.) What I didn’t mention—new to my radar this week— is that right now, the very same thing is going on with cordwood that did with pellets. It’s been making headlines in several northeastern states.

So, I called up my friend and Biomass Magazine columnist John Ackerly, president of the Alliance for Green Heat, to get some more details on the situation. 

He said he’s never seen a situation like this.

“It’s unprecedented,” he told me, adding that current headlines could get environmentalists up in arms  because it sounds like the industry is depleting wood resources, when that’s far from the truth. “That’s never the case, it’s really just been because of the perfect storm of events,” he said.

The storm Ackerly spoke of is made up mainly of three different factors, the first being last year’s cold winter. “[For this heating season] People bought earlier, just like they’re supposed to,” he said.

The second issue is that the region experienced a very wet spring, so loggers couldn’t get into the woods. “Sometimes loggers are the firewood processors and sometimes firewood processors buy from the loggers, but regardless, there wasn’t [an adequate] supply this year,” he said. “A guy who normally sells 2,000 cords a year now only has 1,500. So they’re not able to handle existing customers, much less new demand.”

And last, many loggers are retiring and there isn’t a younger generation ready to take their place. “We’ve seen this in general in the pulp and paper and lumber industries...there just isn’t a new breed, a younger generation that wants to get into the business,” he said. “Firewood [business] is hard labor, and doesn’t have a high-profit margin, so it’s not necessarily the most attractive work.

Ackerly added that another important issue that isn’t being highlighted is that half of the woodusing portion of America still gets its own firewood and knows the drill. “Lots of people in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire are perfectly fine, because they’re old timers and they know you should have multiple years of wood stocked. The problem is more common for people who are recently getting into it, who aren’t getting their wood early and don’t have an extra year’s supply like they should. Even getting it in the spring still isn’t long enough to ensure that it’s properly dried for that winter; many species need a full year.”

Interestingly, in some places such as around D.C., firewood can be obtained for free—it’s a burden to tree trimmers. “There are signs around [D.C.] saying ‘free firewood,’ placed by commercial tree trimmers who would love to get rid of it,” he said. “In bigger, urban areas, the cost of tree removal is  high, and so many are coming down for different reasons, so they love to drop it in people’s driveways or yards or let anybody pick it up.”

Finally, I asked John whether or not biomass power plants using more wood is exacerbating the issue. He said that while the issue is at the bottom of the list of reasons for the shortage, increased competition for supply—including from these plants that use chips, as well as for pellets—does factor into the equation.

One of the big-picture results of this situation is that there will be a lot more wood smoke, in Ackerly’s opinion. “Twenty percent of the country will end up burning wood that’s not as seasoned as it should be—because of the shortage, because they got it too late—and it’ll result in retailers selling wood that’s not as seasoned as it should be, and it’ll have a health impact.”

I also asked him what he thought about the pellet industry’s current situation and if he thought they would experience any issues this year, and he seemed fairly confident that they wouldn’t, or at least not to any degree close to last year. “My prediction is that the pellet industry got their message out loud and strong last year, so a lot of people have bought early,” he said.

Unfortunately, he added, he doesn’t think the firewood folks did.

I’ll leave it at this for today, but John will be discussing this very issue in his next Biomass Magazine column—you’ll want to check it out in the November issue, currently in production.