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Repurposing Wood Chips for Renewable Energy, Economic Opportunity

There has been much coverage in the news recently about a Northern Arizona University pilot program that has resulted in the shipping of wood chips from Northern Arizona’s ponderosa pine forests to South Korea for use as renewable energy.

NAU’s Ecological Restoration Institute has been working with Coconino County, the Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs, the Arizona Department of Forestry & Fire Management, the Forest Service and with private businesses to determine the economic and logistical viability of shipping wood chips to South Korea as a business opportunity and to help with forest restoration efforts.

Materials such as pine needles, wood chips and other debris — referred to as biomass — from forest thinning efforts are generally disposed of in Arizona through burning. In fact, the City of Flagstaff pays $40 per ton to transport wood chips to be disposed of in Phoenix. Some refuse is also sent to a biomass power plant in Snowflake, in North Central Arizona.

As we saw this summer with the Museum Fire, forest thinning efforts are vital in Northern Arizona to prevent and help contain wildfires. This biomass is also in high demand with companies engaged in efforts to increase renewable fuels.

What is the connection with South Korea?

In 2012, the South Korean government mandated powerplants reduce their use of coal by 10% by 2023. A small country without significant forest resources, South Korea set out to look for a source of biomass to support renewable energy programs.

In 2014, representatives from a South Korean business came to Arizona to assess the possibility of using woody biomass/wood chips from Arizona. At the time, there was not enough forest refuse to make a venture work.

Since then, the logging and sawmill capacity in Arizona has increased and the opportunity to export wood fiber had become more viable. This increased viability is attributed in part to Forest Service forest restoration efforts that have made more wood fiber available. The company reengaged with officials in Arizona in 2018.

South Korea is interested in small-diameter ponderosa pine trees too small to be processed into lumber. Wood chips from these pine trees would be used to manufacture wood heating pellets to offset the use of coal in power plants.

NAU is working with the Forest Service and the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to ensure that exporting wood fiber does not negatively impact existing forest-based enterprises in Arizona.

Last month, through the efforts of a number of partners including NAU, 60 containers of wood chips were shipped to South Korea as the start of the pilot. The wood was hauled and chipped at Bellemont’s Camp Navajo, where the Department of Emergency and Military Affairs is based, and sent by rail to a California port.

The shipments are expected to reach South Korea this month. If the project proceeds, the company, JA International, is looking to receive about 500,000 tons of wood chips and other forest products every year for the next 20 years.

Bigger picture, NAU researchers are exploring whether this endeavor will lead to larger opportunities for biomass in the U.S. and in international markets. Part of the study will look at whether industries looking to offset their carbon footprint and reach their climate goals are willing to pay for woody biomass as a renewable fuel.

NAU also saw an opportunity given the extensive rail system in the area. Many containers make their way through Flagstaff loaded with shipments and travel back empty. Scientists are asking how we can take advantage of the trains coming through here. How can we take the existing resources and make them profitable?

As part of our mission to support and enhance the important relationships we have in Northern Arizona, NAU sees potential for regional economic benefits from this project, including the creation of jobs, the expansion of the wood product industry in Northern Arizona and the possibility of attracting other wood product industries to the area, potentially even scaling it into a hub. FBN

By Dr. Rita Cheng

Rita Cheng is the president of Northern Arizona University.

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