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Wood gains points as an industrial fuel

Wood-stove users may soon be lining up with power plants and industry for fuel. Increasingly, as oil prices whirl upward, new forms of power production from wood are becoming economical.

Energy users are looking at trees and are seeing fuel for generators and boilers.

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In a report last year by the Office of Technology Assessment, it was estimated that energy from biomass (plant matter) could provide from 15 to 20 percent of US energy needs, up from 2 percent today. About 60 percent of this increase would come from wood.

At the same time, the report noted that wood had "few significant environmental problems and some important environmental benefits," such as the elimination of bothersome forest waste products.

Wood today is used to fuel both industry and utility companies and, in many cases, the wood otherwise would have been either burned or dumped.

The biggest wood-waste producers are lumber, pulp, and paper mills, which have become increasingly self-sufficient in energy. Great Northern Paper Company has completed a $36 million bark boiler to produce steam for one of its paper mills in Maine. An estimated 400,000 barrels of oil a year will be saved.

"Our driving force," remarks Paul Firlotte, Great Northern's power systems manager, "was that we had a tremendous investment dependent on [an easily disruptable supply of] oil. That has all changed."

Great Northern's mill sits in a region that is heavily forested and could sometime rely to a much greater extent on native fuel. The six-state New England region is 80 percent forested.

More than 150 companies already are using wood in New England and the trend toward wood is accelerating. According to New England Energy Congress figures, the area has the potential of using enough wood to replace 148 million barrels of oil.

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"For some companies," reports Gorden Deane, alternative energy program manager for the New England Regional Commission, "this may mean the difference between staying in business and not staying in business."

To encourage more companies to use native fuel, the commission is using a grant from the Department of Energy to lend to New England companies the technical assistance necessary to convert to wood. Converts to wood range from a boarding school in Massachusetts to a rubber company in New Hampshire.

In Alexander City, Ala., the ECON Company (Energy Conservation Company) buys wood residue from neighboring sawmills and supplies it to four local firms.

"It's just been a real fairy tale," remarks Benjamin Russell, company president, who adds that the sawmills had had trouble getting rid of their wood waste while local businesses were in the market for cheaper fuel.

One of the most ambitious projects in New England may soon begin in Burlington, Vt. Citizens have approved the construction of a 50-megawatt wood-fired plant to cost between $50 million and $100 million. The project is awaiting approval by the Vermont Public Service Board.

The Burlington Electric Light Department already runs two 10-megawatt wood-powered boilers, which it expects will revert back to coal once the new plant comes on line.

Wood will be recovered from a 60-mile radius around Burlington and an effort will be made to avoid buying other than waste wood and wood from cull trees.

Seattle City Light also is looking into wood for power, but with a much different angle. It hopes to eventually harvest its own wood.

The utility has planted two 10-acre plantations of poplar trees under previously barren powerline rights-of-way. If the project is successful, thousands of acres of poplars could be planted under powerlines and in areas not suitable for growing anything other than this hardy species.

By 1990, says Linda Dolan, biomass project manager for Seattle City Light, 50 megawatts of power could be produced by wood from its plantations, supplemented by mill waste and cull trees from established forests. Another 50 megawatts could be added by 1995, although Ms. Dolan concedes that the entire project is "a little ambitious."

One challenge for Seattle City Light is developing the correct treatment of poplars. Until recently, remarks Ms. Dolan, poplars were considered a weed tree and "any literature on it details how to kill it."

But why poplar trees? According to Edward Hansen, project leader for the US Forest Service's hybrid poplar project, it's because they sprout from the stumps of their felled predecessors. Also, they grow fast. Some experts, for example, say poplars can provide several times as much energy per acre as corn.

Mr. Hansen's research into poplars, although not concentrating on their fuel advantages, could help to develop the best hybrids for the different site conditions in which they would be expected to grow.

The US Forest Service is joined by private companies in developing poplars. One example of these is Miles W. Fry & Son Inc. in Pennsylvania.

Morton Fry, company president, envisions poplar plantations spreading across the nation on marginal farmland, mine-spoil sites, and sanitary landfills.

While poplars present an attractive picture for energy production, they may not be suited for all areas. In fact, experts say, a variety of woody plants grown on plantations could give the country a needed energy boost in the coming years .

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