Editor's Note: This story originally appeared in The Salt Lake Tribune on October 19, 2011.
Logan • Utah's woods are loaded with energy potential that land managers want to tap to create an economic incentive for thinning sick forests.
Trouble is, woody biomass comes up a loser in federal tax and energy policy. That will have to change, analysts say, if burning and refining wood chips are to become effective tools in forest management.
Some kind of subsidy or break is necessary to pull wood even with low-cost coal, University of Idaho forestry policy professor Jay O'Laughlin said Tuesday at Utah State University's "Restoring the West" conference. But while the economy is sluggish, he predicted, it may be up to states to support biomass projects.
"Uncle Sam is broke," he said.
At present, Utah isn't helping level the costs for wood and other renewable energy. Surrounding states require that their utilities get 15 percent to 30 percent of their electricity from renewables in the coming decade or two. But conference participants chuckled when they heard Utah's 20 percent goal is a "suggestion."
"We all know why" Utah has no mandate, state Department of Natural Resources Director Mike Styler said in an interview, "because our Legislature is pro-coal." Long term, he said, "we're going to have to be pro-everything," and that's why Styler attended in search of biomass ideas.
Many foresters believe thinning the trees is the best hope of slowing beetle attacks that have killed millions of acres of Western woods in the past decade and a half. With few loggers or sawmills working in the Intermountain West, though, the government lacks industry partners to defray costs by selling the product.
Some environmentalists, wary of industrializing wild landscapes, remain unconvinced. At least where southwest Utah's pinyon-juniper forests are concerned, Wild Utah Project Executive Director Jim Catlin said, there's strong evidence that today's relatively crowded forests are just recovering from deforestation.
Government soil surveys indicate that Beaver and Iron counties likely had dense forests much like today before settlers cut them 150 years ago, Catlin said. The pioneers cleared patches around settlements and mines to make fuel charcoal. Today, clearing them favors cattle grazing.
"If we do cut these places," Catlin said, "it clearly isn't to restore the forest."
But most conference participants saw thinning as an imperative for restoration, and experts said it will require government guidance.
Using wood chips to fuel electric boilers costs about 10 cents a kilowatt hour, O'Laughlin said, compared to 4 cents for coal. Other renewables such as solar and wind enjoy better incentives that help make them competitive. And federal law favors other biofuels, such as ethanol, over kerosene-like liquids that refiners could make from wood.
The 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act, encouraging renewables, severely handicapped the very biomass that foresters hope to use, O'Laughlin said. In mandating the addition of 21 billion gallons of advanced biofuels to the nation's transportation supply by 2022, the act disqualified any coming from federal lands or even private lands that are not in sustainable plantations.
Changing that to support wood use could help battle climate change, O'Laughlin said after his presentation. U.S. forests absorb about 10 percent of the nation's carbon dioxide output, but they put back another 5 percent through forest fires. Burning some of the wood to offset fossils fuels and reduce fire risk would improve the ratio.
Biomass-derived electricity has advantages among renewable-energy sources, though it's not the cheapest, said Daniel Simon, an energy consultant and attorney with Ballard Spahr. It's cheaper than solar, more expensive than wind, and provides a steady supply for times when either of the others is unavailable. But it's nearly twice as expensive as using a natural-gas plant.
There are two tax breaks to help with biomass, Simon said, but both expire at year's end. One gives a 30 percent break on plant construction and the other a modest break on production. The outlook is bleak for keeping them or increasing them to make biomass competitive, he said, because Congress is in a cost-cutting mood.
O'Laughlin sees hope in a fledgling congressional biomass caucus led by New England lawmakers.
"If you want political action," he said, "see that your congressman joins the caucus."