BIOMASS ENERGY FOR MARYLAND

Maryland forests are a natural, renewable resource with untapped energy potential in the form of woody biomass, which could transform our local economy and create innumerable benefits to the health of our woodlands. The Maryland Clean Energy Center is looking to educate, inform and demonstrate how our forest stands throughout the state can serve as a regenerative clean energy source through the use of woody biomass.
Why Maryland is Perfectly Positioned to Establish Wood Energy Market
What is woody biomass? Where does it come from?

Woody biomass is all of the solid organic material from trees, whether it’s stems, limbs, branches, sawdust or culled wood. It includes residues from forestry products, as mills try to make use of every part of the harvested tree. The U.S. Forest Service defines woody biomass as “trees & woody plants, including limbs, tops, needles, leaves and other woody parts, grown in a forest, woodland or rangeland environment, that are the byproducts of forest management.”

This renewable resource — whether solid woody material or wood residues from logging or manufacturing — can come directly from the forest through thinning for wildfire management/suppression and forest health, urban/community forestry via urban wood waste from tree trimmings/pruning and hazardous tree removal, as well as from wood manufacturing industries and their forestry product leftovers.

What can woody biomass be used for?

There are numerous products and markets that can be created from woody biomass, such as wood composite products like Trex decking and particleboard, soil amendments like mulch and the increasingly trendy biochar, or reclaimed/salvaged wood for recycle/reclaimed furniture stores like Second Chance or DIYers. However, the largest, most impactful use of forestry and woody byproducts would be as a renewable thermal energy resource, displacing fossil fuels. Woody biomass provides on-demand energy sources that complement solar and wind energy as part of renewable energy capacity that can handle high demand situations. Solar and wind energy generation focuses on electricity, while wood products tend to be better suited for thermal energy generation or combined heat and thermal plants. For these heating and cooling needs and industrial processes, biomass power plants can directly generate thermal energy more efficiently than converting electricity to heat. Firewood, wood pellets, wood chips and charcoal all can serve as home, commercial and public building heating biofuel.

Maryland has a lot of wood volume being harvested, but significant portions are not well-utilized. According to recent USFS data, there were over 1.38 million tons of wood from recyclers, arborists, tree removals and aggregators, enough for 50 combined heat and power plants, from 500KW to 5MW, and 800 schools. The U.S. Forest Service also reports 14.0 to 34.5 million green tons of biomass are generated annually through tree removals in urban areas. All of these numbers add up to a large amount of woody biomass that has been historically wasted and could be converted to a value-added product and renewable biofuel.

The Maryland Forest Service’s Best Management Practices for wood fuel harvesting is guidance that’s already established, so although woody biomass harvesting and markets would be new, policies are in place to see the process through in an environmentally sound way. (link to BMPs here)

What are the benefits of woody biomass?

Using this organic, locally sourced byproduct of forest management has an endless list of benefits, whether it’s used as a renewable thermal energy feedstock or for other forestry products like biochar soil amendment or wood composite building materials.

With Maryland’s forests increasing in density, creating a market for woody biomass is important to encourage thinning and timber stand improvement cuts. Cutting the smaller trees at the right time and spacing helps concentrate growth on the larger and better-quality trees, part of a well-balanced approach to carbon sequestration that can stand the test of time. Well-spaced trees and selection of resilient species are important strategies for helping our forests adapt to stressors from climate change. Without woody biomass markets and as remaining markets such as pulpwood decline in the Maryland area, these practices that are so important to forest health and climate resilience are less likely to occur. The woody biomass markets take advantage of locally grown and harvested renewable fuels, a plus for a viable rural economy. They also help make these practices important for forest health within reach of all landowners, a plus for equity concerns as well as forest health.

Woody biomass only gets used for fuel if it’s cheap, and demand shifts to other fuels if prices rise. Although wood is abundant in Maryland and our forests grow significantly more than is reduced by harvesting and natural mortality. Mortality rates are increasing as many of the state’s forests age, and thinning helps maintain higher growth rates for longer. An established biomass market and its subsequent financial impact would make thinning projects more feasible and affordable for landowners.

Even after a thinning or timber stand improvement, some dead and downed wood is left for its ecological function as wildlife habitat and adding to organic matter of the soil horizon. Modern fire suppression to keep communities safe also means that the fires that used to thin trees out now rarely occur. Active forest management is used to keep dominant native species and thin out the trees to spacing that better stimulates growth. Thinning also can remove diseased and damaged trees that otherwise could spread forest pests and pathogen. In times of a changing climate and extreme weather swings, including devastating drought, encouraging biomass harvesting and more moderate density, less crowded forest stands will leave landowners with a healthier forest and a sustainable long-term source of land management-based revenue.

All of this management for biomass will, in turn, manage wildfire risk by reducing the fuel load and turning it into a forestry product, spurring more proactive wildfire management. Wood energy could be harnessed from what normally would be left to waste away or be a possible factor in increased fire intensity, leading to further loss in the landscape.

With climate change concerns and a global push for fossil-free energy sources, woody biomass provides a local and renewable alternative that grows wildlife habitat and water quality in its “factory”. Modern technology allows wood to be clean and efficient, addresses concerns stemming from earlier eras of wood heat. Even clean energy options like solar and wind power require the mining of metals as part of panel and turbine manufacturing.

Wood energy is carbon neutral, and tree cover tends to expand as market incentives reward growing trees. As a climate adaptation/forest management tool, the successional, regenerative practice of forest biomass harvesting would involve continual planting reinforcement and development of longer, more active life-cycle carbon sinks in the form of young, growing forest stands in combination with retention of older stands with high storage but low growth. Carbon sequestration is a key part of today’s restoration approaches and woody biomass as a renewable energy source is our best avenue to a net reduction in direct carbon emissions when compared to oil, natural gas or propane.

Though forests are Maryland’s largest carbon sink, U.S. Forest Service Forest Inventory & Analysis (FIA) data (link to FIA data) shows increasing mortality rates and MD forests growing several times more than harvested or lost to mortality. Thinning and using this underutilized resource allows for underplanting and regeneration of the forest floor, with newly growing seedlings and saplings starting a decades to centuries long ecological function of carbon sequestration. In addition to acting as a natural approach to carbon capture, diverting woody biomass that could be headed to the landfill will lessen methane emissions due to reduction in decomposing organic matter going to waste and taking up space at the landfill.

Environmentally and economically, woody biomass used as a renewable thermal energy source is a market that could really make a difference. Maryland would achieve its own energy independence with this organic, homegrown resource, creating jobs and boosting our sagging industry. With a continual cycle of planting, harvesting, collecting and transporting woody biomass, a sizable and sustainable labor force and injection of capital into local economies would create a forestry products market with long-lasting impact.

U.S. Woods Innovation Grant

Through the Woods Innovation Grant, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Maryland Clean Energy Center is partnering with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Forest Service, the Maryland Wood Energy Team, and others to expand renewable, clean thermal energy through locally-sourced woody biomass.   

To do this, we are identifying high potential facilities that currently have little access to renewable energy with a high dependency on heating oil, located near large forest stands with a need for active forest management practices, and an opportunity for employment within the community. Installing thermal woody biomass systems decreases dependency on dirty fossil fuels, provides financial opportunities for landowners to actively manage their forests, and supports local transportation, logging, and forestry sectors. 

To learn more about the benefits of woody biomass or how communities are prioritized for this grant, click the links below.  

Through this grant, we are able to help interested facilities make the switch from fossil fuels to thermally-led woody biomass systems by providing a variety of services such as 

  • USFS Wood Education and Resource Center (WERC) engineering and analysis services  
  • IMPLAN analyses to show the regional investment/fiscal community impact from using woody biomass 
  • Bid-ready designs 
  • Developing a wood supply chain 
  • A pathway into economic development partners & funding programs 
  • Community education and outreach materials 
Environmental Conversations

However, there are concerns we want to acknowledge about woody biomass – What is the impact on the forests and how do we make sure the state isn't over-harvested? What is the carbon life cycle of a woody biomass system? What are the expected impacts to the local air quality and what are the available technologies to limit air emissions? MCEC and our partners take these concerns very seriously. To address them, we are working with the states’ leading environmental groups to ensure we are only pursuing and installing sustainable systems that will not overburden our forests. 

If you would like to participate in these discussions, please send us an email stating your interest.

Grant Updates

In early November, the Maryland Wood Energy Team, which is comprised of experts in the forestry and energy sectors, met to review the prioritization process used to identify high potential communities. Currently, the process is undergoing revisions based on feedback from the group.  

Additionally, economic leaders in Maryland have reached out seeking information on how to rejuvenate their local economy, increase employment, while maintaining their county’s natural beauty. We have been working alongside these leaders and existing facilities within their communities develop innovative ways to reduce fossil fuels, source sustainable materials, and save money.  

Local partners

Biomass Energy Tree Ring Logo web

View additional resources from the Spurring Fossil Free- Biomass initiative.