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Shelly Strom

Oregon's wood products industry is rethinking an old practice.

Instead of just using mill-ends as fuel for steam-powered equipment, the industry is looking at spurring a new source of electricity that could be used statewide.

Allyn Ford, president and CEO of Roseburg Forest Products, is spearheading an initiative by the Oregon Business Council to promote the concept of using debris from forest clearing to fuel electricity-generating facilities located at the site of timber products manufacturers.

"Here in Oregon we have a unique asset in the form of millions of acres of timberlands in need of thinning," said Ford. His company, with upwards of $1 billion in annual revenue, is one of the state's largest integrated forest products companies.

Ford's idea isn't completely new.

As long as 80 years ago, lumber mills got their power from steam generated by burning sawdust and scraps of wood. As electricity became available to even the most remote mill locations, the practice died out.

Fast-forward to today, when energy prices are climbing rapidly and global competition is pushing heavy industrials to innovate.

In addition, after more than a century of suppressing forest fires, much of Oregon's public forests are jammed with overcrowded trees.

Much of the timber is "stunted like carrots in a patch that didn't get thinned," said Ford.

The result is timber below grades needed for lumber and forests that aren't much like their natural predecessors.

"A sweep of fire was normal. But now we are out of balance and prone to unnaturally severe wildfires and disease," said Russ Hoeflich, Oregon director for environmental group The Nature Conservancy. "We have a huge volume of biomass that has been building over the years."

He, along with industry officials, testified early this month before a state house committee in support of clearing forests for biomass.

Not only could forest biomass converted to electricity provide a cheaper energy source and boost the competitive edge of timber products companies, but the power could be sent across power lines for use statewide.

An estimated 15 million acres of Oregon forest, most of which is owned by the U.S. Forest Service, is in need of clearing.

If the "backlog" of biomass in Oregon forests was cleared by about 700,000 acres annually and used to generate power, it could provide about 20 percent of the electricity used in the state. At that rate, the supply could hold out between 20 and 25 years, according to the Oregon Forest Resources Institute.

With public policy support, the concept is beginning to take shape in states such as Utah, Colorado and California.

At its Weed, Calif., facility, Roseburg Forest Products is working to launch an electricity-generating facility next spring that will be powered with forest biomass.

For Oregon to see establishment of similar arrangements -- which require long-term supplier arrangements with federal foresters and millions of dollars in investment -- proponents are seeking public policy support.

Foresters at Oregon's 17 federal forests, for instance, need to be in concert, said Mike Cloughesy, forestry director at Oregon Forestry Resources Institute.

Investors would be given added incentive if utilities, through the Oregon Public Utility Commission, agreed to a purchase price for any electricity above and beyond the needs of timber manufacturers.

"When the cost of oil goes over $50 a barrel, all of the sudden a lot of things click into place," said Ford.

In addition to Oregon Business Alliance, a group convened via the Oregon Department of Forestry at the direction of Gov. Ted Kulongoski and Sen. David Nelson, R-Pendleton, is working on public policy to support forest biomass. Both entities hope to see a policy established by the Legislature in 2007.The Business Journal of Portland via MSNBC News