Economics of forest biomass challenging for rural development, study finds

The use of residual forest biomass for rural development faces economic hurdles that make it unlikely to be a job source in the near future, according to an Oregon State University analysis led by a University of Maine researcher.

The study, published in Forest Policy and Economics, focused on biomass generated during timber-harvesting operations. It was led by Mindy Crandall, a doctoral student at Oregon State and assistant professor of forest landscape management and economics at UMaine.

In a model of the forest industry, researchers in Oregon State’s College of Forestry combined an evaluation of costs for collecting, transporting and processing biomass with the potential locations of regional processing facilities in western Oregon. Each location was chosen because it is adjacent to an existing or recently closed wood product operation, according to an Oregon State news release.

Biomass consists of branches and treetops that are left in the woods or burned. In some accessible locations, the debris is ground up to make a product known as hog fuel, the release states.

“There’s a lot of interest in focusing on the use of biomass to meet multiple objectives, one of which is support for rural communities,” Crandall says. “We thought this might provide some support for that idea. But from a strictly market feasibility perspective, it isn’t all that likely that these facilities will be located in remote, struggling rural communities without targeted subsidies or support.”

The researchers say the future feasibility of reducing costs by increasing the efficiency of biomass operations may depend on public investments and the creation of new markets. While the study considered the possibility of generating biomass from restoration or thinning operations on federal forestlands, it concluded the additional supply does little to change the economic feasibility of processing facilities, according to Oregon State.

The full Oregon State University release is online.