BioCycle Magazine

Generating biomass fuel from disaster debris

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Natural disasters create massive amounts of vegetative debris, the majority of which is landfilled or open burned. These environmentally harmful practices are the norm partly out of necessity and convenience, with a focus on clearing material as quickly as possible after a disaster - versus finding outlets for the material including mulch, compost and biomass fuel. The biomass fuel market in particular is developing rapidly, driven by cap-and-trade policies in Europe and other efforts to reduce fossil fuel usage and emissions.

Better preparation for handling debris properly will both expedite general recovery and increase chances for utilization. In March the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released “Planning for Natural Disaster Debris,” an update of the 1995 document with the same title. Designed for communities interested in creating a disaster debris management plan, it offers components of a successful plan, management options for various debris streams, case studies and resources. According to the National Science and Technology Council (cited in the EPA document), natural disasters cost the U.S. an estimated $52 billion every year, in lives lost and property destroyed.

The major components of a disaster debris management plan outlined in the EPA document are: Preplanning; Identifying debris types; Forecasting amounts of material; Listing applicable federal, state and local environmental regulations; Assessing current debris processing capacity and determining debris tracking mechanisms; Preselecting debris management sites; Identifying equipment and administrative needs; Developing a communication plan; Disaster debris prevention and removal strategies; Harmful materials identification and handling; Recycling, such as mulch and composting; Biomass fuel and waste-to-energy options and; Open burning and Disposal.

If suitable outlets for woody disaster debris are nearby, little to no extra cost or effort is needed to make use of the material. Considering the large volumes left after a storm, several avenues will likely be needed. In some areas, lack of local infrastructure to handle the large volumes has been a significant barrier. Some facilities that take woody biomass for fuel already have enough incoming wood, and therefore are not able to accept much additional wood waste from a disaster. Additionally, these facilities sometimes do not have the capacity to store much material for future use. Planning ahead and identifying the capacities of local facilities is essential for ensuring the utilization of woody disaster debris.

The EPA suggests that one method of evaluating an area's biomass markets is to involve the state forestry or natural resources agency. Some states, through these organizations, plan to inventory available biomass in forest areas in order to strategically manage standing timber and therefore limit vegetative debris in the event of a natural disaster. Geographic Information Systems (GIS), satellite imagery and aerial photography will allow these planners to develop risk maps and scenarios for natural disaster response.

To encourage communities to plan ahead, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) began a Public Assistance Pilot Program in 2007. According to a FEMA fact sheet, the Pilot Program covers four key components: “Providing grants on the basis of estimates; Increasing the Federal cost share to applicants that have a FEMA-approved debris management plan and at least two prequalified debris and wreckage removal contractors identified prior to a disaster; Allowing applicants to retain any revenue from recycling disaster debris as an incentive to recycle debris; and Reimbursing the straight- or regular-time salaries and benefits of an applicant's permanently employed staff that performs debris-related activities.”

There is an established track record of diverting debris from natural disasters to biomass fuel. In Florida, electricity was generated from almost half of the woody debris that resulted from Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne (in Polk County) in 2004. Progress Energy received about 800,000 cubic yards of debris. After Hurricane Ivan that same year, Escambia County (Florida) managed more than 6.5 million cubic yards of vegetative debris, with 60 percent exported to Italy as biomass for energy generation, 15 percent sold to paper mills, 15 percent used as landfill cover and 10 percent burned on site in air curtain incinerators.

In Texas, American Biorefining shredded millions of tons of trees and forest debris from Hurricane Rita in 2005, which were shipped to various European countries for biomass fuel. In Louisiana and Mississippi, Green Energy Resources purchased one million tons of vegetative debris in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina that it sold to the United Kingdom (as part of a contract for more than five million tons annually). It later purchased another million tons, sold for use in power plants in the northeastern United States.

Joseph Murray, President and CEO of Green Energy Resources, says that his company would have purchased more, if given the opportunity. Based in New York City, Green Energy describes itself as a “bioenergy supply company” acting as a broker of woody biomass. “We have the capacity to take basically all of the woody debris from a disaster,” says Murray. In his opinion, the main limiting factor is the way regulations have been set up to support contractors and subcontractors. “They bring in tub grinders, which is the wrong equipment, grind some material and then burn it or landfill it,” he continues. “This is the structure for contractors to get paid, with regulations that are counterproductive for utilizing biomass, instead of incentives to use it beneficially.” The challenge with tub grinding is that it is used more for volume reduction, instead of producing a uniform chip needed by biomass fuel plants.

Contractors, he notes, are increasingly realizing the need to change this setup, partly driven by the potential markets. “We need better coordination with FEMA and major contractors,” explains Murray. “Currently, the contractors cleaning up after a storm are getting paid five times the price of transportable wood, skewing the already tricky economics.” This is because the expense of shipping woody biomass, which has a high volume to weight ratio, has traditionally limited use to a 50- or 100-mile radius. With a high price ticket on processing storm debris, and little attention paid to end product, the economics for transporting the low-value product become more severe.

The development of a national carbon credit plan has the potential to expand this radius of reasonable shipping, as well as increase the demand for material. “The federal government could direct the market in part by structuring the way contracts are set up,” Murray says. The carbon market would add value to woody biomass, making it profitable to transport properly processed storm debris to more distant markets.

Carbon credits in Europe are sold at open market price, unlike the U.S., where there is no official cap and trade policy. “Considering the European credit market, plus the currency exchange, woody biomass sent from North America to Europe is worth $100 to $125 per ton, delivered price,” notes Murray. “Compare that to the U.S. where the price is $5 to $15 per ton.” Another factor driving the price in Europe is the Kyoto Protocol, with wood from sustainable sources counting towards emissions reductions.

The Forest Stewardships Council sets international standards for sustainable forest management, and accredits organizations to certify products. This involves both an assessment of forest management practices and “chain of custody documentation” that tracks a product from origin to destination. One such organization in the U.S. is Scientific Certified Systems, which operates as an FSC third-party certifier. “With renewable energy, products must be certified by a third-party scientific organization,” says Murray. “They judge materials based on the sustainability of the harvest, or establish that they came from a storm, and identify the species of tree through chemical analysis. These criteria need to be met before material can be shipped out of the country, but they also increase the product's value, for instance in terms of credits a power plant can claim.” Murray calls the certified wood “Kyoto Compliant,” and explains that the chain of custody documentation is invaluable. For instance, softwood can no longer be exported to Europe unless it is heat treated or fumigated (which is cost prohibitive), due to invasive species concerns.

The federal interagency Woody Biomass Utilization Group (Woody BUG) was established in 2003, with a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI). The MOU creates a coordinated effort between the organizations to encourage the use of woody biomass from disasters and elsewhere. After Hurricane Katrina Woody BUG put together a proposal for assistance, sent out to state foresters. “We didn't hear back, until Mississippi held a biomass summit,” says John Stewart, Biomass and Forest Health Program Manager for DOI, and founding member of Woody BUG. “We worked closely with the EPA to put together a disaster relief strategy, since they have a strong interest in keeping woody material away from landfills and open burning.”

Woody BUG convened a team in April 2008 to establish a strategy for future disasters, including a template for states to follow and state-specific web tools. No hierarchy of use will be established for the materials, although various options will be provided, including woody biomass for fuel, mulch and compost.

The template will in part be based around the phases of disaster recovery. “First is the emergency phase, where the roadways are opened, second is response mode, to help private citizens, and last is recovery mode, to manage the general landscape, forestry, etc.,” he says. Timing relief efforts in these stages is important. “In the emergency response phase, green waste is often mixed with building materials, which is a difficult waste stream to manage,” he continues. “Going into the response phase, there is more green waste, and in recovery mode, it's almost entirely pure green debris.” During the response mode different landowners' objectives and needs have to be managed - some claim property rights and want money for timber taken from their land. During the emergency response, this is not an issue, because the material is considered public.

One of the primary goals of Woody BUG is to document lessons learned from past disasters, organized under the three operational periods. For example, during the emergency phase, roadways could be cleared more quickly by involving the forestry industry. “Currently, the Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for road clearing under FEMA's Emergency Support Function 3, coordinated with EPA,” says Stewart. “However, it took almost a week to open the roads after Katrina, with people rioting in the streets and looting. The roads would have been open in about one day if the logging community had been positioned to help, resulting in less security issues.”

The forestry and logging community, he explains, have a lot of experience and equipment, and want to help. If loggers could be plugged into FEMA's system and become NIMS (National Incident Management System) compliant, they would be able to put those skills and equipment to use during emergency cleanup. “Loggers have the know-how, the equipment and the interest, and would add to the Army Corps' already remarkable skills,” he continues. “Working directly for FEMA would also provide loggers with the logistical support (food, fuel, sanitation, etc.) and security needed to enter the disaster zone.”

Woody BUG also wants to ensure that contractors hired through the Army Corps include more opportunities to divert disaster debris to productive use. “Part of preparing for disaster debris is choosing properly sized equipment that is matched to the material,” says Stewart. “We're trying to list equipment, with specifications depending on geography and tree type. For example, in the south there aren't as many big trees, which means the biggest equipment won't generally be necessary.”

It would be a daunting task to compile this information for all states potentially threatened by natural disaster, so sample counties will be chosen, with details compiled about equipment, local markets and temporary storage areas. “Besides those few examples, it is entirely up to local communities to develop and identify markets and outlets,” says Stewart. “The message we're sending to vulnerable communities is that a storm will hit you eventually, and we encourage you to be prepared.” This means creating a strategy, prewriting emergency permits so that they don't have to be reinvented every time, establishing routes for transportation and drawing up maps with appropriate bridges identified. In addition to these templates, statewide web tools will be developed.

One example of a statewide website under development is in Mississippi. After Hurricane Katrina, the Mississippi Forestry Association established a blog (web log) on hurricane recovery, with news items and frequent updates ranging from raised weight limits on roadways to new Department of Environmental Quality permitting for storage. “The blog proved to be very useful, and prompted the idea of a website with disaster resources,” says Dr. James Shepard, Professor and Head of Mississippi State University's Department of Forestry. “The website we're putting together will provide information on preparing for disasters, as well as handling material afterwards. It will also be a way of sharing information between various groups, such as landowners, loggers, mills, composters, etc.” The blog format may still be used for fast updates on specific storms, with links leading from the main website of tools.

Woody BUG is holding stakeholder meetings in Mississippi and North Carolina to flesh out ideas for the website. “One idea is to use Google Earth, where a city can search maps for different possibilities in their region,” says Shepard. “This is called a procurement circle in the paper industry.” Part of the difficulty in preparing for natural disasters is that there is no telling when and where they will occur. “The problem with having any type of business model based on natural disasters is scheduling logistics,” says Shepard. “After Hurricane Katrina there was nowhere for people to stay or buy food and supplies - relief crews not only had to bring their own housing, but also water, fuel and work-related supplies. They had to be totally self-supporting.”

The hope is that Woody BUG's template and web tools, along with EPA's “Planning for Natural Disaster Debris,” will help to streamline both regulations and logistics, enabling the best use of woody biomass from disasters. “There will always be issues of transportation - cost, restrictions on moving material between states - due to weight limitations and concerns about invasive species,” notes Shepard. “But all of that is changing as biomass is rapidly becoming a valuable feedstock for energy.”

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