Year of Award


Document Type


Degree Type

Master of Arts (MA)

Degree Name


Department or School/College

Department of Economics

Committee Chair

Helen Naughton

Commitee Members

Doug Dalenberg, Ranjan Shrestha, Tyron Venn


biochar, biomass utilization, bio-oil, financial performance, forest residues, pyrolysis, renewable energy, slash


University of Montana


There are millions of acres of forestland in the Western United States that could benefit from fuel reduction treatments to improve forest health and reduce wildfire fuels. These treatments generate forest residues that are typically piled and burned. However, with increasing concerns about energy security, high oil prices, air quality from pile burning and climate change, there is great interest in examining ways to economically use these residues as a renewable energy source. Pyrolysis of forest biomass is one method that shows promise, though the financial feasibility of doing so has not been previously investigated. This study presents the expected financial performance of a mobile and a fixed pyrolysis plant in southwest Oregon, where stocks of forest biomass are high. The tradeoffs between using a smaller plant deployed in the forest and a larger centralized plant are then discussed. Pyrolysis of forest residues involves using advanced technology to thermally degrade biomass in the absence of oxygen to produce bio-oil, biochar and syngas. The syngas is used entirely to provide thermal process energy for the pyrolysis system. Bio-oil can substitute for #2 fuel oil in some applications or be upgraded to produce higher value products. Biochar can be used as a substitute for coal or a valuable soil amendment that can sequester carbon and improve desirable soil properties such as water and nutrient holding capacity. Information about costs, revenues and production rates for fast pyrolysis systems have been collected from existing pyrolysis firms and likely suppliers of goods and services to pyrolysis firms in Oregon. Financial performance is estimated using a discounted cash flow analysis to determine net present value (NPV) and internal rate of return (IRR) for each plant. Benefits of an in-woods mobile plant include shorter biomass haul distances that contribute to a lower raw material input cost of $20 per bone dry ton (BDT), as opposed to $45 per BDT for the larger fixed-site plant. The ability to operate separate from the electrical grid and re-locate multiple times per year gives flexibility to the mobile plant. Advantages of the fixed plant include cost savings from economies of scale and lower bio-oil delivery costs. The baseline financial performance assessments for both plants are encouraging, with positive NPV and estimates of 7% and 21% IRR for the mobile and fixed plants, respectively. Sensitivity analyses have revealed that financial performance is particularly dependent on initial capital costs, labor and feedstock costs, and projected bio-oil and bio-char prices.



© Copyright 2010 Colin Brink Sorenson