A multi-disciplinary team of researchers from West Virginia University was recently awarded a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to explore economic and environmental impacts of wood biomass utilization in rural central Appalachia.
The almost $350,000 award is part of $10 million in research grants awarded by the USDA to spur production of bioenergy and bio-based products that will lead to the development of sustainable regional systems and help create jobs.
Projects were awarded in four areas: policy options for and impacts on regional biofuels production systems; impacts of regional bioenergy feedstock production systems on wildlife and pollinators; socioeconomic impacts of biofuels on rural communities, and environmental implications of direct and indirect land use change.
Selected through a highly competitive process, WVU was one of 29 universities awarded funding for its long-term research project.
The grant will fund the three-year project led by Jingxin Wang, professor of wood science and technology in WVU’s Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design.
Joining Wang are Wesley Burnett, assistant professor of energy and environmental economics, Hodjat Ghadimi, assistant professor of design and landscape architecture, Kaushlendra Singh, assistant professor of wood science and technology, and Randy Jackson, director of WVU’s Regional Research Institute.
Although the region is classified as one of the most economically depressed in the United States, central Appalachia is an area rich in natural resources such as coal and timber.
Coal has been the region’s primary industry for decades; however, in the face of a period in which the resource is declining – and there is growing concern about its continued use as a fuel staple – researchers recognize the need for the development of a new industry to boost local and regional economies and for the development of alternative fuels.
As the third most forested state in the nation, West Virginia’s forest products industry contributes approximately $4 billion annually to the state’s economy. With the abundance of the renewable resource available in the state, woody biomass—residues produced from the harvesting process—has been seen as a potential feedstock for sustainable energy production in the region.
Examples of sustainable uses for these wood wastes include biofuels such as ethanol, biogas and green electricity.
To date, however, the economic and environmental impacts of growing such an industry in the state have not been studied.
“Given that the development of alternative and renewable energy in the region is expected to increase significantly over the next several decades, it’s important for us to explore the potential impacts on local job opportunities and economic growth,” Wang said.
To do so, researchers will focus their efforts on a subset of rural counties in southern West Virginia, one bordering county in Kentucky and one in Virginia. With a poverty rate of 22.8 percent and a per capita market income of $18,752 per year, the study area is representative of the rural counties in the larger central Appalachian region.
“The major need for the region is to increase jobs and improve economic health,” Wang said. “There are approximately 3 million acres of timberland with an estimated 190 million dry tons of above-ground woody biomass in the area. Given the abundance of such resources, biofuels may be the region’s answer.”
In an attempt to properly assess the potential economic impact of increasing the utilization of woody biomass as a feedstock for liquid fuels, the team will analyze the of price and availability of woody biomass that will realistically be available in the region, as well as evaluate the environmental impacts of harvesting, transportation, material processing and production of liquid fuels.
“Our intent is to be able to determine direct, indirect and induced economic impacts of utilizing woody biomass,” Wang said. “We’re hopeful the project will provide insightful information on developing an industry to stimulate job creation and economic growth.”
CONTACT: Lindsay Willey, Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Design
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