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Nebraska College Promotes Wood Chips as Cheap, Clean Energy Source

When Chadron State College heats its buildings, school officials don't have to worry about high oil and natural gas prices or the mercury pollution that can come from coal-burning power plants. Instead, the school - located in the northwestern panhandle of Nebraska -- burns wood chips taken from excess pine trees from a nearby state park.

If there's one thing Chadron State Park has in abundance, it's trees. Vast stretches of some of America's finest ponderosa pines cover more than 400 hilly hectares of the "Pine Ridge," as the area is called. University of Nebraska district forester Doak Nickerson says the only problem is that there are too many trees in the Pine Ridge.

"Since it's been settled by Europeans, we haven't seen the fires that used to come through here and keep the forests thinned out," he explains. "So we're dealing with a really unnatural situation now with forests that are really thick and stagnated and overstocked." To reduce the danger of forest fires, Mr. Nickerson's department regularly thins, clears and removes trees. Those that can't be used for lumber are burned.

Then, about 15 years ago, the Forestry Service began to consider other possibilities, such as a wood energy system. At the same time, Ed Hoffman was looking for a new, cheaper, and more environmentally friendly way to provide heat for Chadron State College. The school needed a new boiler system and -- in the shredded bits of excess pine trees -- the college administrator saw a way to move from using natural gas as its primary fuel source, and save about $130,000 annually in the process.

Today, Chadron State College relies entirely on wood chips for fuel. As he leads a tour of the school's energy plant, Mr. Hoffman proudly points out the benefits of the system. "We aren't mining fossil fuels…we aren't pumping fossil fuels…we aren't creating carbon and greenhouse gases that otherwise would have stayed locked up," he says. "The whole notion that there's some potential for wood fuel systems for other institutions is…catching on around the country right now."

Wood chips are a major component of the mulch that Americans spread in their gardens and parks. These chopped-up branches and trees haven't often been recognized as a significant fuel source before now. According to professional wood chipper John Hahn, one reason has been the lack of technology to capture most of the heat the chips generate. But newer boiler designs like the one at Chadron State College are so efficient that 97% of the wood is burned, leaving almost no ash residue.

With the technology in place, Mr. Hahn says wood chips now make financial sense. "Every time the oil prices go up," he says, "it just pushes a little bit harder for them to put in boiler houses like they did at Chadron State College." His chipping operation has been providing the school with more than 7,000 tons of wood chips every year since 1991.

Much more excess wood is available at the state park. "I'm only chipping a sixth or a seventh of the material that's available every year," Mr. Hahn says. The rest is burned - but not in a boiler that provides energy. "So, yes, there's a lot more that can be done and still not hurt the forest," he says. "Actually, it'd make the forest better, because we could utilize more of the stuff that [gets thinned but] can't be used in saw logs."

For forester Doak Nickerson, it comes down to a question of how Americans would prefer their wood to burn. "Instead of letting it burn up in a forest fire, we found that people like to see their forests stay green and alive, versus black and dead," he notes. "We thought [a wood energy system] would be an opportunity for us to make use of the forest."

So he and Chadron State College Vice President Ed Hoffman continue to visit other schools in the region to spread the word that woods chips can do more than simply mulch a garden.