Reinventing Smethport’s Forest Legacy

Biomass Magazine — by Susanne Retka Schill

Smethport, Pa., is a little town with a history of biomass use, and abuse. The forest around the small town in the Alleghany Mountains of northcentral Pennsylvania was first logged to supply tall, white pine poles for the masts of sailing ships when they were the primary mode of world commerce. Hemlock bark was harvested to supply tannic acid to the hide tanning industry. In the next industrial development, a dam was built in 1825 to power the sawmills that turned the hardwood forest into lumber for furniture and construction. In the mid-1800s, the chemical wood industry moved in to clear-cut the remaining forests to manufacture chemicals such as acetate, acetone and wood alcohol, and by the 1930s, the hills were bare.

“That will never happen again,” says Tim Pierson, forestry specialist for the Pennsylvania State Cooperative Extension Service in McKean County, who works in Smethport. The forest grew back after its abuse, this time with stands of mixed hardwoods, including high-quality black cherry. Where the cherry covered less than 1 percent of the forest before, many areas now have stands of 25 percent black cherry. “McKean is the black cherry capital of the world,” Pierson says. Loggers select the best of the cherry trees for the furniture business, along with maple, oak and white ash. “We have the highest quality hardwoods, and nature did it,” Pierson says. Maintaining that quality through sustainable forestry practices is his goal as the community moves forward with a plan to harvest low-grade woody biomass for heat and power.

Pierson was part of a group of foresters who visited Austria a year ago to see for themselves how one nation has managed its forests for multiple uses for hundreds of years. A heavily-forested country about two-thirds the size of Pennsylvania, Austria has 1,560 district heating plants using woody biomass—about 20 of those are combined-heat-and-power (CHP) systems. Soon 50 percent of Austria’s energy will come from renewable resources, with 15 percent to 20 percent from wood. “The forester is one of the most respected persons in the community,” Pierson says. “And their forests didn’t look like they were overused, even though they’ve been used for thousands of years.”

Smethport Mayor Ross Porter remembers when Pierson was touring Austria. “He called me three times,” he says. “He was aware of our need to replace our water system in Smethport—some of our pipes are still wooden. The day he returned he was in our kitchen at 6:15 in the morning. That was the beginning.” The two became co-chairmen of the Smethport Woody Biomass Leadership Team and held a series of community meetings to gain widespread support for the project. “[Using the forest] is part of our history, this is part of our tradition, and we’ll be doing it a lot smarter than it was done in the wood chemical industry,” Porter says.

Duplicating the Austrian Model
Smethport is modeling its woody biomass project on one the foresters visited in the rural town of Gussing, Austria, where the biomass CHP system covers a plot of land about the size of a football field and provides the town’s 4,000 residents with electricity and heat in a system that burns wood chips at 93 percent efficiency. The research and development center and business incubator draws about 1,000 people a week to tour the renewable energy facilities. The renewable energy center has revitalized the local economy, which was suffering from job losses and the loss of many of its young people.

Smethport is hoping to duplicate Gussing’s experience. McKean County is home to the Allegheny National Forest, Pennsylvania’s only national forest. Seventy-eight percent of the county is forest, which includes a considerable amount of private forests. The woody biomass project would harvest undesirable trees for heat and power, while enhancing the quality of the trees that remain. Pierson is working with a group of foresters and local loggers to develop criteria for sustainable harvest. “We want to demonstrate how to harvest woody biomass sustainably to benefit the ecosystem and the forest industry,” Pierson says.

Smethport’s leaders hope to reinvent the community. “Biomass is local, so you keep your energy dollars local,” Porter says. “I like to call it localization rather than globalization, localization of energy dollars.”

The borough of Smethport operates its own electric utility, paying more than $1 million a year for wholesale electricity. “That doesn’t include the heating bills everyone pays,” Porter adds.

Smethport proposes to install a CHP system, to generate electricity and supply heat for the entire community, installing the pipes for a district heating system at the same time as replacing its aging water system. The estimated cost for the water system alone is $20 million, of which the largest expense would be digging in the water lines. Porter says a preliminary figure for the combined district heating and water project is $50 million, even with the considerable savings from doing only one excavation for the combined project. As the county seat of McKean County, there are opportunities to partner with county, state, federal and borough governments for the centralized heating system. The proposal also includes building a research and outreach center and a business incubator. While there are college campuses and a handful of cities with district heating, it is believed that Smethport would be the first community of its size in the nation with such a system. The group is hoping the innovative nature and demonstration value of the project will attract funding.

The project has already attracted grants totaling $150,000 to help with the planning. In March, Smethport’s woody biomass team sent letters to 65 engineering firms soliciting those interested in developing the project for the community of 1,700 residents and 830 homes. “The response knocked our socks off,” Porter says. “We received 13 really strong statements of qualifications. We had top engineering firms from Denmark, Austria, Sweden, Germany, some partnering with U.S. firms, as well as strong U.S. firms apply.” At press time, interviews were being scheduled to pick the winning candidate.

Growing Regional Interest
Smethport is one of several communities in the Northeast studying woody biomass-fired CHP systems, according to Lew McCreery, woody biomass coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service in the Northeast. “To some extent this drop in oil prices has slowed the interest,” but as soon as the economy turns around those oil prices will go up again, he says.

Compared with the recent volatility in oil prices, the price of wood has been much more stable over the past 20 years, he points out. However, for McCreery, the efficient utilization of renewable energy resources, not cost, is the most important factor. Capturing and utilizing the waste heat from electrical generation increases the efficiency of the system from a mere 30 percent when waste heat is exhausted to nearly 90 percent. McCreery adds that in the Austrian tour, he learned that any combustion system installed there, whether it’s a big power plant or small trash incinerator, is required to have a market to utilize the heat.

McCreery would like to see the concept deployed in the U.S., with multiple distributed power systems matching the available renewable resource with residential or commercial customers able to use the heat in CHP systems. Part of the groundwork is in place, he says. A Community Wood Energy Program is authorized as a U.S. Forest Service program in the energy title of the Farm Bill, although the program remains unfunded. “If there were money in CWEP, we would be trying to support projects where communities take a look at their wood resources and determine what could be used locally for a CHP project, whether to heat a few buildings or the whole community,” McCreery says. “Other USDA programs can help fund building the projects.”

While funding CWEP could boost woody biomass utilization efforts, an even larger policy issue needs examination. Because of the experience in communities such as Smethport that saw its forests exploited and abused in the past, there is a reluctance to allow the harvesting of woody biomass from national forests for bioenergy. Language in the 2007 Energy Independence & Security Act does not qualify woody biomass from national forests and natural private forests as feedstocks for advanced biofuels in the renewable fuel standard (RFS). Similarly, language in the renewable electricity standard (RES) currently being discussed in the U.S. Congress would not qualify the use of woody biomass from national forests or privately held natural forests. Missing from the discussions on the RFS or RES, McCreery says, is the utilization of heat to maximize the efficiency of the renewable resource.

After touring large and small woody biomass CHP systems in Austria and seeing the impact of keeping energy dollars local while sustainably managing the forests, McCreery says he’s a convert. “We can [harvest forests for bioenergy] and have a real positive impact, if we use the efficiency concept and share the energy.”

Susanne Retka Schill is the assistant editor of Biomass Magazine. Reach her at or (701) 738-4922.