Foresters, loggers grapple with loss of markets for low-grade wood

By: - June 7, 2021 6:15 am
A forest with the sun casting shadows

Only taking the best trees and leaving the scraggly trees behind can create a situation called high grading, where the tall, straight trees are removed and sold, while the low-quality trees are left. (Getty Images)

Burning wood to create electricity can be a problematic proposition. It’s often highly inefficient, it generates emissions, and it’s expensive. Without subsidies, wood-burning power plants often can’t afford to stay open.  

While it’s been billed as a renewable fuel – trees eventually grow back – environmentalists in the Northeast have increasingly opposed inefficient power plants that can bleed off as much as 70 to 75 percent of the energy value of wood into the air. Changing attitudes around biomass have led to the halting of certain projects, such as a $200 million wood-fired heating plant Dartmouth College was going to install on its campus. Still, biomass is part of New Hampshire’s renewable portfolio standard – qualifying biomass power plants count toward renewable requirements set by the state.

But policies related to biomass power plants have been changing around the Northeast. In 2019, a proposal to continue subsidizing New Hampshire’s plants made it through the Legislature but was vetoed by Gov. Chris Sununu, without the votes to override it. In the wake of the policy debate, several biomass plants in the state closed.

Without biomass power plants, the timber industry is scrambling to figure out what to do with low-grade wood, which is often a byproduct of harvesting. For loggers like Jeff Eames, the kind of low-grade wood that can be used for biomass is half of what his company moves.

“We’re selling forestry equipment and our production of saw logs is going down,” said Eames. “We had 25 people working for us; we’re down to 15.”

Eames said “in the good old days” the company he runs would make 1,000 tons of wood chips a week. Now, they produce maybe 100. The good old days were 18 months ago.

Of the eight biomass plants in the state, only two run with any sort of consistency: Bridgewater Power and Burgess Biopower in Berlin. While some environmentalists and climate scientists may celebrate their closure, loggers and foresters are wondering about the uncertain future of their industry.

“The loss of the market is just devastating,” said Jasen Stock, executive director of New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association.

With the closure of biomass plants, the industry has been shrinking. Sawmills are now operating at two-thirds the capacity they were two or three years ago, Stock said. Some loggers have sold their equipment and gotten into construction. Others have left the state.

“There are folks out there that decided to retire early,” Stock said. “Loggers are trying to figure out: How do I stay in business?”

Dennis McKenney, a New Hampshire forester, said: “We have moved heaven and earth to find a market for the pine pulpwood that’s there. But there’s no market.”

And these changes have led to a contraction in the woodchip market, to the tune of 1 million fewer tons of wood consumption, according to Stock. There’s no clear answer about where the million tons of low-grade wood will go now. The wood keeps growing on the landscape, but for now, there’s no final destination in sight.

“For 40 years we would do a timber sale and everything was neat and clean. Now we’re leaving a tremendous amount of woody debris behind,” Eames said. That’s because there’s no market for that debris – with no one to pay for the product, it gets left behind.

But why is it a problem for that wood to stay on the landscape in the first place? For some landowners, it’s about the aesthetics of leaving piles of brush and debris on the land. It can also impact how the land is used. Leftover wood debris can make it difficult to use land for hiking or cross-country skiing.  

“It’s probably two to three thousand tons of biomass that will be left on site,” McKenney said. Removing that material, he said, can be a part of insect and fire control.  

There are a few ways biomass is generated. It can come from the leftover parts of what’s called a high-grade tree used to make timber and products. But stems and branches remain, as do scraggly or sick trees that can’t be sold for other uses.

McKenney described it like a garden. When you’re growing carrots, you have to cull some of the crop or the carrots won’t grow to their full maturity. Similarly, he said, the best forestry practices today involve weeding trees that are sick or deformed to allow space for healthy trees to grow. He said that losing the biomass markets is making it hard to practice the best forestry.

Only taking the best trees and leaving the scraggly trees behind can create a situation called high grading, where the tall, straight trees are removed and sold, while the low-quality trees are left.

“The forest is left crowded with a bunch of crummy trees,” said Scott Nichols, the owner of a biomass company that sells biomass boilers for heating.

“The wood used for fuel is a byproduct,” Nichols said. “No one is going into the forest to cut those trees down. Fuel wood is almost worthless.”

While biomass power plants have gotten a bad reputation for being inefficient, generating electricity isn’t the only use for wood. It can also be used for heating homes. Wood boilers that take pellets can be cleaner and less toxic than burning logs in a wood stove. 

And using the two in tandem has also been proposed as a solution for capturing the excess heat from electrical generation, but in that case, the power plant needs to be sited near a town or whatever the end destination for the heat is.

For Nichols – whose biomass business is focused on heating homes – it’s frustrating that people often don’t distinguish between wood for electricity and wood for heat. Using wood for heat, only 25 percent of the energy value is wasted, compared to 70 to 75 percent with a biomass power plant.

“An interesting thing has happened where a lot of NGOs have basically thrown us all into the same basket and really created questions for consumers about whether what I do is OK technology or if I’m like Darth Vader out there trying to destroy the world,” Nichols said. 

“Sometimes I wish I’d never named our company Tarm Biomass,” he said. “Because biomass is so poorly understood.”

Stock said no one has “really come up with a viable solution.” Energy markets were great, he said, because they consume a lot of wood, regardless of the type of tree. Sawmills now are trying to figure out what to do with mill waste, which previously went to the biomass plants. And Eames, the logger, said with operations shrinking, it will be difficult for sawmills to find the raw product – logs large enough to be cut into lumber.

The price of timber skyrocketed during the pandemic, with the demand for lumber surging as people renovated their homes and built new ones.

“Sawmills have invested heavily into new technology, which means more production, but the logging community is definitely unequivocally getting smaller and smaller and smaller,” Eames said. 

Still, there’s some thought of the next generation. McKenney, the forester, said he sometimes takes his grandchildren to work with him. He took his 8-year-old granddaughter out in the woods to plant trees last summer, and now she talks all the time about becoming a forester.  

Asked about what he hopes for the future of the industry, McKenney said he’d like for his grandchildren to appreciate both the beauty and the utility of trees, for them to know the benefit of walking in the woods. 

In New England, where trees can take a hundred years to grow, he said forestry is about delayed gratification. 

“I’m looking at stuff like: This will be a great tree in 60 years,” McKenney said. “I’m 70 years old. I’ll never see that but I do it anyway; that’s what forestry is about.”

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Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee reported on energy and environment for New Hampshire Bulletin. She also previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.