From Forest to Fuel

April 8, 2011

Forest biomass could replace as much as 25% of liquid fossil fuel currently used for industrial and commercial heating in the northeastern U.S., according to a new report by the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies.

While forest biomass can provide a domestic energy resource, create local jobs, and provide incentives for forest owners, the potential for forest biomass varies greatly within the region and the forest resources must be carefully managed to protect other important goods and services they provide.

"In targeted applications, the heat generated by locally grown biomass can reduce dependence on fossil fuels and support local economies," says Charles Canham, a forest ecologist at the Cary Institute and co-author of the report. "But each forested landscape is different and regional variation in forest conditions and energy infrastructure means there is no one-size-fits-all solution."

The report analyzed USDA Forest Service data from Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

It found that using forest biomass for heat in the region was more effective in replacing liquid fossil fuels than converting it to cellulosic ethanol for road transport. Biomass burned in combined heat and power plants reduced fossil fuel use more than 5 times more effectively than substituting gasoline with cellulosic ethanol.

"Maine and New Hampshire show the greatest potential for forest biomass energy," says Thomas Buchholz, a researcher at the University of Vermont’s Carbon Dynamics Lab and co-author of the report. "Our study found that New Hampshire could replace as much as 84% of its liquid fossil fuel dependence in the industrial and commercial heating sector."

While substituting forest biomass for fossil fuel may be a sustainable heating alternative, it is only true if the practice is done sustainably. "There is misconception that northeastern forestland is a vast, untapped resource," Canham says. "This is simply not true. While forest biomass is part of the renewable energy toolkit, it is by no means a panacea."

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