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Wood as Fuel: Sustainability, Resources, and Policy Conflicts


 by Bob Nuner

When we contemplate large wood-burning systems, the question of fuel-wood supply arises. Paul Frederick, utilization forester at Vermont’s Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation (DFPR), has suggested that district heat represents only a small part of Vermont’s wood demand, while nearly half our annual wood use is for residential heating. The next-largest user is electrical generation, such as Burlington’s McNeil plant. Vermont tracks large-system wood consumption via air quality reports.

Cutting trees specifically to supply heating systems is the primary, but not necessarily the only, means to that end. Montpelier’s assistant city manager, Jessie Baker, observed that some locales, such as St. Paul, Minnesota, may have somewhat lower fuel costs for district heating because their chip supplies are augmented by hazardous or waste trees: fuel costs are lowered in that the waste wood becomes a resource that helps lower costs instead of simply representing a removal expense.

Asked for a supplier’s view of the market, Jodi Lathrop, of Bristol’s Lathrop Forest Products, stated in an email that, in Vermont, “the wood chip market is hot. Demand is high and supply is short. Not only does the state of Vermont burn [wood], but also high schools, other municipalities and several colleges. Berlin, New Hampshire’s new biomass plant has a lot to do with the short supply of wood as does Burlington Electric [half-owner of the McNeil plant] and International Paper. These three buy chips and round wood year-round. They vary their price up and down with the supply vs. demand. If supply is short we can sell the round/pulp wood without having to process it for the same amount it would go [for as] chips to the state of Vermont.”

Lathrop described firewood pricing as “through the roof.” She pointed to problems on the supply side of the equation. “The state of Vermont and the federal government,” she wrote, “are not putting up enough decent log jobs to amount to anything. We just finished what United States Forest Service contracts we had that were put up for bid in the early 2000s and late 1990s. Not many have been brought forward in our area of the state in years.”

In a follow-up phone interview, she characterized access to Forest Service lands as “very small…very selective…vastly underutilized,” noting a disjunction between biomass fuel promotion and restrictions on cutting in what she termed “weedy” forests.

Less obvious, she  noted, “is the number of woodsmen who are aging out and retiring. There are not enough young people coming in to replace them. Loggers are dwindling as regulations get more and more cumbersome. The cost to [do] business in Vermont is through the roof. The equipment is horrendously expensive and young guys and gals can’t get funded. It is daunting to try to purchase a $650,000 machine. The logger is becoming extinct much like small family-owned dairy farms.”

Concerns such as forest health, fuel supply, and competition for resources, in the context of the need to cut costs, conflict with one another. Asked about the advisability of removing virtually all harvested tree material when that may be the most efficient way of generating wood chips, DFPR’s Frederick noted that the Legislature’s Natural Resource Committee had charged his department with providing, by next January 15, a set of recommendations for establishing minimum standards of “leftovers” to be retained after tree-harvesting, in the interest of retaining organic matter for forest health. “We’re in the process right now of developing those harvesting guidelines that landowners can use on a voluntary basis, based on the best science we can come up with.”

Still, the balance between a cheap supply of wood and sustainable forests will likely remain a challenge for decision-makers far into the future.