When third-generation Southern Oregon woods worker Jack LeRoy looks at the huge pile of logging slash, he is energized.
"This is electricity to us," said LeRoy, 58, of Medford. "We are turning wood waste into usable biomass . . . into energy people can use."
LeRoy is a partner in Forest Energy Group LLC, along with fellow veteran Rogue Valley loggers Don Hamann and Ron Hailicka. The business focuses on forest health and stewardship logging projects, including turning logging slash into wood chips to be fed to the Biomass One cogeneration plant in White City.
The logging slash pile is one of several the company is removing this month from a private parcel about six miles east of Lost Creek Reservoir.
Logged a little more than a year ago, the area is marked by half-a-dozen slash piles as tall as a two-story house.
"You can see limbs and tree tops as well as cull logs that don't have any merchantable value," LeRoy said. "There are short chunks and trimmings. ... We are bottom feeders."
LeRoy spoke loudly to be heard above the steady roar of two log loaders and the Morbark Wood Hog 3800LX, a huge grinder of all things wood.
"We just purchased this grinder — half a million dollars," he said of the new Morbark, adding with a grin, "Yes, given the right beans, it'll make coffee."
Loader operator Jake Hamann, 29, deftly picked up large loads of debris with the loader's jaws, then dumped it into the maw of the Morbark.
He was also controlling the grinder with a remote control joy stick and computerized panel. He can walk it farther up on the pile or back down the logging road on its metal tracks. Or he can fire up the machine's hammer mill which literally beats the wood into pieces.
"It's just like operating a remote-controlled car — you have forward and backward and a throttle," Hamann said after climbing down from the loader to concentrate on running the grinder.
His fingers fly over the panel, and the machine dutifully walks up the pile.
"You can run the yoke, the speed — everything with this," Hamann said, then pointed to a large red button, "And you have an emergency shut off in case you really screw up."
LeRoy will tell you the investment in the 64,000-pound behemoth illustrates the firm's faith in the future of biomass energy.
"We certainly recognize the need for this slash," said LeRoy, the firm's point man on the biomass project. "But it has always bothered us to see slash piles burned every year when they could be utilized."
The focus on utilizing that material began about seven years ago when the firm had thinning contracts for the Medford Water Commission in the Big Springs area east of Butte Falls.
"They were the first ones to require that all the slash be removed," he said, noting that in the past the slash piles would have simply been burned at the site in the fall or left as a fire hazard.
"That got us started in looking at markets for ways to get rid of the material, and now we think there is a future in this," he added. "There is no need to burn it. What we are doing is carbon neutral. We send it in and make electricity out of it."
He figures the work is carbon neutral because the slash will no longer be burned on the ground but will be consumed at Biomass One where pollution controls remove most of the greenhouse gas emissions.
"In the life cycle of the tree, utilizing it this way comes out carbon neutral," LeRoy said. "It has been debated a lot of different ways but I believe this is a pretty good thing in terms of utilizing a resource."
The White City facility burns wood waste to create steam and electricity, producing about 30 megawatts annually, enough to provide power for nearly 20,000 houses a year. Employing about 65 people, it has been in operation since 1987.
Each full load brought down from the site near Lost Creek carries about 28 "green" tons of hog fuel, bringing his firm about $700 each, LeRoy said.
"We get paid by the bone-dry ton — we're usually around 15 bone-dry tons in each load," he added.
His seven-member crew, including truck drivers, has been working at the site for about a week, and expects to truck out up to 50 loads, he said.
"The biggest challenge we face is being efficient enough to make a profit at this," LeRoy said. "It is usually right on the bubble of making it or not making it. We don't make money on all the piles we go to but we try to hit that average where we make money at the end of the day."
But, he noted, the result was providing jobs that brought home family wage earning paychecks.
While the firm has largely worked on private land, it has been prequalified to compete for local federal contracts that will take place over about three years, he said.
"That would keep us busy for maybe 30 days out of each year," LeRoy said. "As they have biomass available from one of their sites, we will submit a proposal."
Turning logging slash into biomass is an important part of long-range planning for the High Cascades Ranger District, said District Ranger Kerwin Dewberry.
"The logging debris piles are huge," he said of logging slash within 15 miles of Butte Falls and Prospect.
Moreover, the district has a huge thinning project in the form of the 58-million-board-foot Rustler timber sale that is supported by both the environmental and timber camps. Enough small-diameter timber is expected to be thinned from the sale to build roughly 5,500 average-size homes.
But the slash from the sale has no traditional commercial value, Dewberry said.
"Given the plans we have here, we definitely see biomass utilization as a tool that could be used for many years to come," he said.
Back at the private parcel east of Lost Creek, Hamann uses his remote control to fire up the big grinder. A steady stream of wood chips is carried up a conveyor belt to be dropped into a waiting chip trailer.
"This is going to create energy while it is being burned," LeRoy said. "We're cleaning this up while turning it into something useful."
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.