Bob Mowbray: Enough wood for a local biomass plant? Really?

Posted by erauch, July 26, 2011

As construction begins on the Gainesville biomass facility, there is one important aspect that I believe has not been adequately scrutinized nor explained: The claim that the plant’s energy will be produced by burning wood waste left over from forestry and tree-clearing operations

Has the real volume and availability of this material and the economics of collecting and transporting it been calculated?

As a professional forester, whose job it is to procure wood fiber for a paper company that uses three million tons of wood fiber per year in north Florida and south Georgia, I think the “wood waste” left over after commercial forestry operations will provide nowhere near the million tons per year that this facility is planned to consume.

The distance that would be required to go out and collect this relatively small volume of limbs, branches and other debris behind logging operations could be cost prohibitive; that is, unless the cost can ultimately be passed through to the end consumer, i.e., the residents and businesses of Gainesville.

GRU’s Ed Regan has stated that this material is “a lot more predictable and stable” than natural gas and coal. Really? Unlike gas and coal, logging operations, or for that matter, post-logging operations, are weather sensitive. Heavy equipment on water-logged soils can be problematic at best.

It is my prediction that in short order after the biomass plant is up and running, these realities of supply and costs will change drastically, but the customers will be stuck with the bill.

In order to procure the necessary wood fiber that will be required by this plant (remember: one million tons every year, or, the equivalent of around 40,000 fully loaded log trucks) its procurement strategy will be forced to adjust and compete with the multitude of paper mills, sawmills and wood mulch plants in north Florida. And not just for the limbs and branches, but, yes, the whole tree.

On the bright side, this will be a positive for timberland owners and forestry in general as the increased competition for their trees will result in a correspondingly increase in the value of their timberland assets. This will act as an encouragement for rural lands to remain in trees.

But from a pure economic perspective, the biomass plant will be one of the reasons that these assets appreciate, and this will eventually be evident to all of GRU’s customers when they open their utility bills.

Only by having an accurate estimate of the cost and availability of the biomass can a valid comparison be made to the existing fuel sources. In my opinion, GRU may be underestimating the cost and overestimating the availability of what it defines as biomass.

Bob Mowbray lives in Gainesville.