16 May 2013

Wood Energy

Wood energy (currently) offers the single greatest potential to sound renewable energy.  More than solar and wind combined.  Furthermore, it can be employed in each of the three ways humans use energy; heat, power, and transportation.  It's sound from the three pillars of sustainability; environment, economics, and socio-cultural.  However, it's the third pillar that present the greatest challenges. No surprise that people just don't get it. 

People don't like cutting trees.  It's absurd, but it's real.

The environmental footprint of wind and solar is greater than that of wood.  But that's another story - filled with misconceptions about wood and narrow reasoning.  And, we need both wind and solar, along with all other renewable energy technologies.  It's not about a competition among renewables.  It's about displacing fossil fuel with any renewable. 

Wood chip systems compete well with the cheapest fossil fuel, natural gas.  Guess which fuel type is most likely to increase in price?  Which one adds carbon to the natural carbon cycle?  Trees grow back, especially when forests are well-managed.  Natural gas and other fossil fuels don't grow back.  Almost ANYTHING is better than consuming fossil fuels.

Worried about bang for the buck in extracting energy from wood?  Compare wood to fossil fuels.  All energy products take energy to produce.  By and large, the conversion in not particularly efficient.  Fossil fuels are among the least efficient, and they are without doubt the most environmentally damaging.  But they're cheap.  So, the almighty dollar wins again.  Yet, this time it's not some huge, amorphous corporate entity.  It's each of our own individual decisions.  Americans refuse to pay a marginal increase for global stability.  As Pogo said back in 1971; "We have the enemy and he is us". 

Worried about subsidies?  Gheez, take a look at the fossil fuel industry!!  You think your gasoline and power aren't already heavily subsidized!  Consider paying your full freight for fossil fuel energy, including damage to the environment.  We've been getting a cheap ride for decades . . . putting the payment to our grandchildren.  Selfish bastards, we are. 

Worried about carbon, CO2, and climate change?  Go with wood.  Yes, wood releases carbon, particulates, and other emissions.  But wood got all that stuff from the natural carbon cycle in the first place, mostly the atmosphere.  So, it's a mathematical wash.  Burning wood simply moves that stuff (e.g. carbon) among the normal, natural carbon pools.  Fossil fuels don't do this.  Their combustion introduces carbon that has been stored for millions of years.  Better to leave it in storage.

Worried about devastating forests?  Don't be stupid.  Wood energy will help keep forests as forests, preferably managed forests.  Temperate deforestation is caused by land use conversion, usually urban sprawl and urban splatter.  Americans have an atrocious land use legacy and current policy.  Again, another story.  In the tropics, deforestation is a significant problem.  But we're talking about temperate forests and energy use.  Completely different animal.  Vibrant wood markets lead to demand, which leads to better management potential, which leads to healthier and more diverse forests. 

There is, of course, much more to say about the benefits and wisdom of wood energy.  It's not an inexhaustible source, but it's a pretty big piece of the solution, if people could only shed their ignorant prejudices and Sierra Club mantra.