Japan Considers Turning Timber into Power

The Forestry Agency is considering building biomass power plants that can use as fuel the large volume of timber debris caused by the massive earthquake and tsunami that hit northeastern Japan on March 11.

TOKYO, Aug. 4 (Kyodo) — The Forestry Agency is considering building biomass power plants that can use as fuel the large volume of timber debris caused by the massive earthquake and tsunami that hit northeastern Japan on March 11.

Proponents of the idea say it aims to kill three birds with one stone -- disposal of debris, promotion of a renewable energy source and invigoration of the forestry industry -- but critics are questioning if it will be a financially viable project.

"Initially, wooden pieces of debris will be used for power generation and when it becomes financially viable, wood thinned from forests will be used," Takashi Shinohara, senior vice minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, said at a meeting of an advisory council of the Forestry Agency on July 13.

Biomass power generation uses organic resources derived from animals and plants such as thinned wood, sugar cane and excrement of domestic livestock. Unlike petroleum or coal-fired power stations, it can contain emissions of carbon dioxide and faces fewer constraints in securing fuel resources.

Along with solar power, it is considered a renewable or natural energy source.

According to the agency, the quake and tsunami disaster generated 25 million tons of debris from housing alone with roughly 70 percent being wooden. Even if unfit materials such as those soaked with saline content from seawater are discounted, 5 million tons are estimated to be usable.

One power plant typically needs around 12 tons per year for fuel. The volume of debris is "enough to fully cover fuel for several years," said one agency official.

The agency is envisaging providing plant operators with half the cost of building facilities at about five locations in the disaster-hit area. It is hoping to secure around 10 billion yen in appropriations in the third supplementary budget for the current fiscal year.

But Miyuki Tomari of the Biomass Industrial Society Network (BIN), a non-profit group, says, "It's good so long as there is debris but that is after all a stopgap (material)."

Her comment reflects the situation of timber-based biomass plants, which numbered 144 throughout the country in a 2008 survey by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications.

"Many are struggling after having failed to eke out a profit," said Tomari.

Spikes in the prices of petroleum and coal around 2008 prompted many manufacturing plants to switch to biomass for their in-house power generation facilities. This pushed up the costs of construction and demolition debris used as fuel.

Much of the thinned wood in forests is left abandoned on the spot. An operator of a biomass plant says, "Delivery out (of the forests) poses problems and is costly, so it does not pay to use it as fuel for a power generation plant."

Kenichiro Kojima, executive director of the Pellet Club, which promotes the use of natural energy sources, says, "Power generation alone will never be profitable. Efforts should also be made to make use of residual heat."

The Forestry Agency for its part is considering building five plants adjacent to timber processing factories, for instance, being rebuilt in tsunami-hit areas.

The agency is hoping to provide not just electricity but also to deliver water heated by residual heat or water cooled by vaporization through piping for heating and cooling of housing in nearby areas, as well as for freezing and refrigeration at fish processing factories.

On the feasibility of timber-based biomass power generation and heat supply, Minoru Kumazaki, a scholar of forest resources management, said, "Conditions are beginning to be laid out to make it feasible, such as legislation for having power companies buy electricity generated with renewable energy sources, which is being deliberated in the Diet."

"It's also necessary for the state to take more comprehensive measures such as building roads in mountain areas in order to bring down the cost of logging and delivering thinned wood from forests," said Kumazaki, professor emeritus of Tsukuba University.


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