Family converts forest into source of electricity

LANGLEY — A Whidbey Island family with an abundance of firewood is using it to make electricity rather than watch it go up in smoke.

In the midst of the recent recession, several generations of the Olmeim family pooled their money to buy a forest near Langley.

The forest was part of a 52-acre compound partially developed by a couple who did well in the dot-com boom. On 11 acres of the property are two beautiful homes, numerous other workshops, outbuildings and outdoor living rooms among lush gardens. Homemaking expert Martha Stewart even flew out from the East Coast to see if she wanted to buy the property.

After the Olmeims settled in, they decided to take Washington State University Extension’s forest stewardship class in Everett, where they found out they needed to prune and thin their 41-acre woods.

The trees in the 25-year-old forest were planted too close together, hindering their health. Thinning, however, resulted in a lot of trees on the ground. All were too small to sell, even for pulp.

Looking for ways to make use of the wood and provide some alternative energy for the property — which often has electrical power outages — the Olmeims stumbled on the technology of producing gas from wood to power a generator for back-up electricity.

“It was so fascinating, we really got jazzed about it all,” Gary Olmeim said. “We’re originally from Alaska, where people often need alternative energy, so we decided to see if we could sell these wood gas units. In some places up there, wood gas could power a house. We can hardly believe more people don’t know about this.”

Here’s a simplified version of how wood gas works:

The logs are chipped up and fed into a gasification unit, a double-sided metal canister that super heats the chips to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Oxygen is removed, so there is no fire or smoke. A process called pyrolysis causes the chemical decomposition of the wood, which creates the wood gas that fuels the generator.

The cost of thinning a private forest can be recovered by making use of the logs, Olmeim said. For every 2 1/2 pounds of wood chips, they recover a kilowatt hour of power.

The Olmeims even figured out a way to use the byproduct of this process. Biochar is charcoal created by pyrolysis of biomass wood waste. The family is testing the biochar in their compost and as a soil supplement throughout their gardens and in their greenhouse. They have seen some good results and now plan to sell biochar at the Langley farmers market this summer.

Kevin Zobrist, Everett’s WSU Extension forest stewardship expert, even encouraged the Olmeims to experiment by returning the biochar to the forest floor. The idea is to see which does better: an area with biochar, an area with rotting logs or a cleared out area, he said.

Zobrist also has been fascinated about the process of pyrolysis and he plans to offer a thinning, pruning, wood energy and biochar workshop on May 4 at the Olmeim place on Whidbey.

“We will be able to show people why thinning is a good idea. The Olmeims have good examples of what a forest understory looks like when the forest has been thinned. A recovered understory provides a good home plants and animals,” Zobrist said. “In a forest that is too dense, the forest floor is dark and not much grows there. The trees grow up, but they stop growing in diameter and stop being resistant to insects and disease.”

Healthy forests are important on Whidbey Island, where water resources are cherished, he said.

“Clean water is recognized as the most important forest product,” Zobrist said. “You can’t take care of water in a paved environment. The forest soaks it up and cleans it, a slow-release filtration system that is better than anything we could build.”

Zobrist said he encourages people such as the Olmeims to thin their forests, but leave clumps of alders or maples for songbird habitat and to create meadows for other wildlife.

Except for the few stands of old growth forest left, all forests are marked by human disturbances, he said.

“So forest stewards, people who keep their private forests growing, are correcting the course that humans have set,” Zobrist said.

The Olmeims are happy to have a place where extended family members can come to vacation. More importantly, Gary Olmeim said, they are happy to keep their forest growing.

“We are in this for the long haul,” Olmeim said. “It’s good for us and for our neighbors. It’s changed our lives.”

Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; gfiege@heraldnet.com.

Learn more

To learn more about wood gas power, go to the Olmeims’ website, www.woodgasnorthwest.com. To take the forest thinning and wood energy workshop offered by WSU Extension on May 4, go to snohomish.wsu.edu/forestry/thinprune or call 425-357-6017. Deadline to register is April 15.

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