Utah’s Biomass Potential – An Unexpected Energy and Economic Opportunity?

By Governor Gary R. Herbert

A quick online search indicates that for every inch of rain that falls in Utah, three fall in Virginia, and four fall in Louisiana.  So intuitively, given the relative aridity of much of the State of Utah, most folks would not guess that biomass is potentially a significant source of renewable energy here.  However, in recent years conservationists and foresters here in Utah have begun to identify vast biomass resources that offer great potential.

Back in September my energy advisor, Cody Stewart, traveled to Beaver to meet with many forward-thinking Utahns who are focused on biomass resource, and upon returning, he shared some exciting stories and described some compelling opportunities.

The State of Utah has a few primary biomass resources that include everything from invasive species that are being pro-actively eradicated (pinyon/juniper, phragmites), to native flora that have been damaged by diseases or insects (“beetle-kill” pine), and even agricultural crops (safflower, other oil seeds).  Depending on the resource, there are opportunities for generating electricity, creating high-value liquid fuels or bioplastics, and producing a variety of “bio-chars” that can be put to a range of uses.  So when we talk about biomass as a resource, it’s not just an energy resource, but a resource that can offer many distinct economic development opportunities.  This is exciting for Utah, because it means a wholly new facet to the broader picture that is Utah’s natural resource sector.

By my understanding, the value of biomass resources is potentially much broader than the energy and economy.  Phragmites grasses are invading the shores and marshes of the Great Salt Lake, providing no real food value or protective cover for waterfowl, and pushing out those species of plants that do provide good habitat.  Similarly, as the invasive pinyon and juniper trees march across the landscape, they force out the native sage brush, ruining habitat for the sage grouse, along with other species that rely on the native flora.

Anytime economic values and conservation values align, I see real opportunity for the State of Utah.  While we witness rapid economic growth along the Wasatch Front, opportunities for rural communities have been less forthcoming, and so I am excited to hear more about biomass in the coming months.  At my 2013 Governor’s Energy Development Summit, being held at the Salt Palace Convention Center on January 10th and 11th, there will be a panel discussion that addresses some of these issues, and I encourage you to attend.