Jason Barton

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Forests at center of clean-energy debates

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Similar discussions are being held in British Columbia and the western U.S. where millions of acres of forest have been destroyed by the mountain pine beetle. Burning the wood in electricity plants is one possibility. Others are arguing in favor of fermentation, converting them to ethanol and other biofuels.

The standing dead trees pose serious fire danger, and while fire is a natural and necessary part of the forest life cycle, many people argue that the pine beetle is a pest basically introduced, or at least encouraged or enabled, by humans, and thus these particular fires would not be naturally occurring, so the trees should be cleared to diminish the risk of fire.

That debate in itself is a tough issue, but it’s not the only one.

In terms of building biorefineries, my main concern would be the infrastructure necessary to process the timber. In BC, people in the school of forestry at the University of British Columbia estimate feedstocks for about five years of production. This is timber over and above the usual use of timber for construction and paper, whose industries either cannot use the beetle-killed trees or simply do not have the capacity to process the volume of timber that would still be usable for their purposes. Five years after spending the tens of millions of dollars to build the refineries, what would become of them? And what would become of the forests that had previously stood there? Many fear the expenditures would induce the continued use of this land for similar purposes, accelerating the pace and vastly increasing the surface area of land that, instead of existing on a natural ecological cycle, it will be existing on our cycle and for our purposes.

This brings us to the question in the second paragraph below regarding the use of stumps or saw dust versus fresh cut trees. Those stumps and other so-called ‘residues’ or, in agriculture, ‘waste’ products, serve important functions in maintenance of soil quality, biodiversity, and other ecological functions. Removing that biomass is not a kind act of cleaning up after ourselves in the forest; it’s robbing the land of more of the biomass that it needs in order to function.

I realize this is verging on a pretty idealistic or naive rant, so I’ll end here. The point is that we need to consider carefully some of these very un-conservative proposals.

Apr 3 – McClatchy-Tribune Regional News – Bruce Henderson The Charlotte Observer, N.C.

Environmental and green energy advocates are challenging Duke Energy’s plans to burn wood in two of its coal-fired power plants, saying efforts to meet a new clean-energy standard could hurt the state’s forests.

North Carolina’s millions of acres of woods are expected to fuel much of the renewable energy the 2007 law mandates. But should power plants be fueled by stumps, sawdust and old two-by-fours, or freshly cut trees?

Read the entire article here.