Faculty and students in the College of Natural Resources and Environment’s Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation are making their mark in the use of forest biomass — the woody “waste” or residues from timber harvesting — as an increasingly important source of renewable energy.
In Virginia alone, six new facilities, including four Dominion power plants, soon will use woody biomass fuel to produce electricity, and the discoveries from Virginia Tech contribute to the efficiency, sustainability, and cost-effectiveness of harvesting biomass for energy.
“Woody biomass has been used as an energy source for many years, but it has increased substantially over the past decade,” said Chad Bolding, associate professor of forest operations/engineering. Woody residues are the primary material used for renewable energy generation today. They are processed into wood chips or pellets that can be burned for fuel.
Most states have adopted guidelines for increasing the use of renewable fuels. Thirty percent of Vermont’s students attend wood-heated public schools. In Virginia, Dominion’s Pittsylvania plant is one of the largest biomass power stations on the East Coast, powering more than 20,000 homes.
With efficient, large-scale operations, however, biomass could serve many more. But biomass is only attractive as a renewable fuel source if it is cost-effective and sustainable. Its harvest and production must be managed to protect the envirornment, and all stakeholders, including landowners and industry, must make a profit.
Bolding and his students are taking a systems approach, studying how biomass can best be harvested, transported, and processed. They are developing more efficient processes for industry to conserve environmental resources such as soil and nutrients while maximizing economic potential.
Some fear that removing biomass for energy will do more harm than good, decreasing soil nutrients and ultimately damaging forest health. Bolding found in one study that nutrient removal rates from biomass harvesting are generally not substantial enough to cause long-term declines in forest productivity.
Additional studies Bolding has conducted with graduate students include the following topics:
Both graduate and undergraduate students are contributing to the body of knowledge in this emerging energy option. They have analyzed market changes in the logging community, assessed soil disturbances from operations, and surveyed the fuel efficiency of various harvest methods.
“Our objective is to address real problems that need real solutions,” Bolding said. “Our research is applied and designed to serve practitioners engaged in forestry.”
Forestry Extension Associate Scott Barrett coordinates the statewide SHARP (Sustainable Harvesting and Resource Professional) Logger Program and organizes workshops that serve about 1,000 loggers and foresters per year. Offerings in 2012 included workshops on biomass harvesting and equipment demonstrations for more than 300 attendees.
“The new renewable energy facilities in Virginia will have the capacity to use over 3 million tons of biomass a year,” said Barrett, who is also a doctoral student studying forest operations and business. “Many Virginia logging businesses are evaluating whether they can adapt their operations to use logging residues for energy. The opportunities are out there now.”
For his research, Barrett, of Fincastle, Va., is evaluating the implementation of best management practices for protecting water quality on biomass harvesting sites. Those include practices such as leaving buffers along streams and properly designing logging roads and skid trails to cause the least amount of erosion. They also recommend leaving enough woody residue on logging sites where needed to protect areas of bare soil.
“We are confident that biomass harvesting can be sustainable if best management practices are followed,” Bolding said.
The Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation is helping to change the way forests are managed and harvested. As markets change, so do opportunities in forestry. Students, with their comprehensive perspective of the issues, are prepared to guide and participate in the emerging renewable energy industry.
Since 1996, the SHARP (Sustainable Harvesting and Resource Professional)Logger Program has trained loggers and foresters in the principles of sustainable forestry, environmental protection, and workplace safety.
Recent efforts have focused on biomass harvesting and equipment.
Scott Barrett, at right in photo above, coordinates the program.
Representatives from the forest industry collaborate with Virginia Tech in the Forest Operations and Business Research Cooperative to enhance undergraduate and graduate teaching programs.
Faculty and students work with forest industry personnel to select research focus areas and projects to benefit the industry and prepare students for careers.
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