- Within Oregon there is considerable interest in the possibility of converting woody biomass to energy. This interest stems from three converging factors: the desire to reduce the threat of uncharacteristic wildfire by removing excess material from the forests, the possibility to stimulate rural economies that are dependent on forest products, and generation of renewable and/or clean energy from a local source. There have been a number of studies to assess the feasibility of wide-scale conversion of biomass to energy. These efforts have largely focused on technical barriers to the use of biomass for energy rather than social barriers. This study explores the social context of converting forest biomass to energy, through use of semi-structured interviews. Forty interviewees were purposively selected from the following Oregon stakeholder groups: federal and state agencies, elected officials, community organizations, conservation organizations, the forest industry sector, Tribes, energy utilities and non-utility energy experts. Information gained through the interviews was used to meet two research objectives: 1) to understand stakeholders' views on converting forest biomass to energy in Oregon; 2) to identify, from the perspectives of stakeholders, the opportunities for and barriers to converting forest biomass to energy, and potential strategies to overcome the barriers. In addition, there were two secondary objectives: a) to identify areas of common ground and conflict between and within stakeholder groups; and b) to identify policy components that would be necessary in the integration of the forestry and energy industries in Oregon.
Among research participants there was wide agreement on what constitutes forest biomass; typically small diameter material that is currently non-merchantable, produced as a by-product of restoration or other forest management activities. There was most agreement that restoration treatments are needed in low-elevation ponderosa pine forests in eastern and southwestern Oregon to reduce the risk of uncharacteristically large and severe wildfire. It is this risk of unusually intense wildfire that many research participants felt was driving this issue in Oregon, rather than potential energy or rural economic development benefits. Many research participants wanted at-risk forests restored to conditions within their historic/natural range of variability, which depended on site specific characteristics, but generally meant fewer trees per acre and inclusion of low-intensity fire.
The top three reasons research participants were interested in biomass utilization were the opportunities to generate renewable energy, restore forests, and stimulate economic growth in rural communities. While participants were enthusiastic about these opportunities, they brought up a number of barriers that would have to be addressed before the full suite of opportunities could be realized. The most vital and most challenging barrier was access to supply. Factors making supply more difficult to secure included the expense associated with long transport distances, and that while supply needs to be long-term, continuous, inexpensive, and guaranteed, it is mostly on federal land, where the public is involved in land management decisions and politics plays a role. Another challenge is the long history of contention between parties related to forest products coming from federal land, and these parties would have to all agree that biomass utilization using supply from federal forests is acceptable before supply could be made available. Many research participants suggested that collaboration could allow these projects to be developed in a manner acceptable to all parties. Costs could be federally subsidized to make projects more feasible. Participants encouraged development of pilot projects to move discussion from speculation to actuality. Many research participants expressed more comfort in smaller energy facilities to prevent energy needs from dictating forest management, i.e., to prevent the tail from wagging the dog.
The overarching goal of this research is to provide information useful to collaboration groups, policymakers, land managers, communities, and relevant advocacy groups to create a foundation for discussions as forest biomass energy becomes an increasingly prominent issue in Oregon.