Energy as a Tool in Forest Improvement

In June 2008 Penn State administered and financially supported a collaboration of stakeholders to visit, tour, and analyze Austrian bioenergy efforts.
Energy as a Tool in Forest Improvement - Articles


Biomass harvest in Austria, one year later...

Through the duration of the visit and subsequent efforts, the program participants collected a wide range of facts and supporting information to enable an ongoing range of efforts of technology transfer and education here in the Mid-Atlantic United States.

Highlights of the individual and collaborative efforts of the participants since the program include:

  • 25 technical and educational programs, in 5 states, for over 400 participants, on woody-based bioenergy opportunities, led or organized by Austrian program participants
  • 14 articles, publications, blog entries, or web sites by program participants
  • 2 peer-reviewed articles submitted or in preparation
  • A Pennsylvania DCNR guidelines document for sustainable harvest of woody biomass
  • 3 graduate students now working for program participants in bioenergy-related research
  • 32 projects either directed by, or advised on, by program participants since return:
    • 10 community-based
    • 6 industrial Combined Heat and Power
    • 7 research
    • 9 other
  • One participant was selected to be part of the core leadership group for a new eXtension community of practice on forest bioenergy
  • One professional video project under proposal development through program participant collaboration with WPSU producers
  • One professional logger (program participant) analyzing various options for biomass harvesting/processing investment
  • 13 grant proposals written or participated in with a potential funding potential of over $12 million

Details of the Program

Visits were made to the following energy facilities and managed forest sites over a five day period. They included visits to:

Energy Cabins assembly facility, Gleisdorf.

Design, assembly and full testing of modular systems providing heat and cooling for industry, hotel and residential complexes, health care facilities and more with solar and wood input. Energy Globe Award Winner. Unfortunately, this company went out of business in 2009. Perhaps this presents a business opportunity for some enterprising American company.

Municipal district heat system, Neckenmarkt.

Constructed over eight weeks in 2004, Neckenmarkt operates with two 400 kW biomass boilers fueled with wood chips. Operates year round to provide service hot water and space conditioning for approximately 100 residential, municipal, commercial and industrial structures.

It was in Neckenmarkt that the program participants were shown how the local harvest management was conducted. In Austria, much of the land is communally owned as a result of hundreds of years of division of feudal lands. The community foresters manage the forests according to the needs of the community; in Neckenmarkt, this means that each year, a sufficient number of trees are marked for harvesting, and the community members are allowed to harvest trees alloted to them in order to offset their heating bill from the district heating system. Heavier users would tend to harvest all the wood allotted them, while lighter uses typically harvest less.

Güssing, Austria

Combined heat and power, 2 mW electrical, 4.5 mW thermal, Güssing. Energy Globe award.

Vienna, Austria

Large combined heat and power facility, Vienna. 23 mW electric (summer) 15 mW electric (winter), 37 mW thermal (winter), serves approximately 48,000 households for power and 12,000 for heat. It was in Vienna (Simmering) that we learned that large-scale production of electrical power from wood has inherent disadvantages of efficiency and scale that should be avoided so as to avoid negative impact on smaller-scale, more efficient utilization of wood for energy.

In the following months, a myriad of benefits were realized and transferred from the project participants to the general public as programming was developed and delivered from the information learned on the trip.

  • Woodland owners and managers along the eastern seaboard have been taught ways to identify and develop relationships with new markets, adding value to sustainable forest management sales usually considered 'unmerchantable.'
  • Energy engineers, architects and design professionals have learned why wood, a modern thermal fuel, can be environmentally and economically attractive to their clients and generate new business. They are now learning how to identify and plan for and develop supplies of appropriate fuel through continuing collaboration with members of the Austrian contingent.
  • Citizens, scientists, regulators and representatives of public interest groups concerned with environmental issues have been introduced to the approaches taken to set and monitor sustainability limits in countries such as Austria that more proactively utilize woody biomass for fuel. Issues covered by developed programming have included the limitation of forest cutting based on soil protection, biodiversity goals, and forest stand improvement needs.
  • Community, state and federal leaders are being educated on approaches taken to successfully implement projects having favorable economic and social impacts on residents of small towns and cities, and supported in the conceptualization and development of local woody bioenergy projects. In many communities across the Mid-Atlantic region, active projects are underway to utilize the ideas collected by the members of the Austrian Extension bioenergy program.

Selected comments from Program Participants

  • 'We got a glimpse of the future.' - Dan Richter, Duke University, co-author of "Wood Energy in America" and other energy-related articles upon his return
  • 'My naive belief that fellow forest owners would embrace what I see as multiple synergistic benefits and flock to form a timber/woody biomass producing coop has been shattered. Not that I haven't tried. Lack of an extant well-defined biomass market doesn't help, but I think that the coop idea is too much at odds with the way the forest industry is currently organized. I think it's unlikely that small forest owners are will take any leadership role. More likely, the forest products industry will add biomass production to their portfolio. Some of this is already underway here.' - Anthony Nekut, New York Consultant
  • 'I have a blog where I have written a couple things on the Austria trip ... I hope to get some more blogs written that learns from Europe experience. My next pub in the forest finance series I plan to do on bioenergy issues.' - Michael Jacobson, Penn State
  • 'I offer a yearly program called the Western Maryland Local Government Exchange which will take place in May. Energy is on the mind of all local government officials, the target audience of this program. I successfully convinced our steering committee to focus on energy for the program, of which forest biomass generation will be one panel discussion. I will sit on that panel. This may lead to other project ideas in the region.' - Jonathan Kays, University of Maryland
  • 'I have taken to heart the message from Austria that the wood or biomass is the limited resource and we should consider projects that make the best use of the resource.' - Tom Wilson, Pennsylvania Consultant
  • 'Things have been rather busy for me since picking up the pace here following the excursion to Austria. I have become active in the statewide Fuels for Schools and Beyond working group. This fall we have held two day-long workshops that included a tour of a local functioning bio-mass facility. We have had over 75 participants. I also participated in Penn State's Ag Progress Days program in late summer on the topic of Biomass project integration. The FFS&B wg has a web site that provides info in the group's efforts and upcoming events.' - Ed Johnstonbaugh, Penn State 
  • ' The Smethport Woody Biomass Demonstration Project, which actually began with our discussions in Austria, is in the feasibility and planning funding stages. Smethport (a community of 1700) located in the wood basket of Pennsylvania must replace its entire water infrastructure and also owns/maintains it's own electric company (purchases power presently). The Mayor (Ross Porter) and I quickly (6:30 AM of the first day home from Austria) pulled together a core group of Smethport leaders and developed an exploratory demonstration project which includes a CHP facility and probably secondary district heat only facility that will supply heat and power utilizing woody biomass feedstock's for the entire Borough...' - Tim Pierson, Penn State
  • 'Our participation in the Austria Biomass field visit greatly influenced [ The Nature Conservancy's ] thinking and actions on conservation-compatible woody biomass energy and we again thank the program sponsors for the opportunity to participate in this visit.' - Dylan Jenkins, Nature Conservancy Pennsylvania
  • '...we may have found at least one basic reason energy and policy professionals have not accepted woody biomass as a legitimate energy source. If some active research pans out it could be possible to stimulate public awareness and build some of the credibility that has been missing.' - John Karakash, Pennsylvania Consultant
  • 'This trip was a tremendous experience for me professionally. I gained first hand knowledge about modern combustion technology, the integration of that technology into community energy systems at different scales, and how the Austrian government is working with its universities and communities to make a substantial commitment to wood energy... In my role as the Northeastern Area's Biomass Coordinator I'm trying to share what I learned in Austria across the Northeastern Area. The new wood combustion technologies and the implementation of district heating and cooling systems at different scales offers many rural and urban businesses and communities a much more secure energy future. Wood energy is sustainable, cost effective, supports local economies, and is environmentally sound...I'm now engaged in several projects around the Northeastern Area related to the use of wood for thermal and process energy. In each situation I share my experience in Austria with my cooperators. I explain that while their economic forces are different that ours, we can learn from and adapt their knowledge here in the US... .Additionally, I continue to work closely with the folks that participate in the trip. My interaction with each of the participants has increased my understanding of how we can expand the use of wood energy here in the US...I would like to thank Penn State for this great learning opportunity. ' - Lew McCreery, USDA Forest Service