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Winter has settled in (watch for our photo essay in the coming weeks), and for most of us that means the heat is on, the days are shorter and we are using more electricity. The deep Southeast is even getting a severe dose of cold – weather usually reserved for folks in the northern tier of the country.
The deep freeze, though, makes this a good time to talk about renewable energy from sustainably grown forests. We’re starting that exploration with Marcus Kauffman’s look at Alaskan communities that power their schools with wood-fired boilers. Over the next month, we will also touch on the use of wood to make liquid fuels for cars, trucks and airplanes. The when, why and how’s of whether wood energy does or does not make sense will be explored.
Our series of articles will illustrate how wood can and is being used across scales, from heating your home to heating college campuses or the downtown of a small or large city. It is also being used to generate electricity in combination with existing heating or cooling systems. And there are stand-alone utility scale power generation plants fueled by wood.
Trees are individual solar energy collectors with wooden batteries that store the energy until we need it. They don’t require rare earth or other metals to be mined. And a whole array of these solar collectors, called a forest, also provides habitat for animals and other plants, stores carbon, filters water, and buffers storm run-off to minimize floods.
But there remain questions to be considered: What level of wood use is sustainable? What about the carbon given off when it is burned? Isn’t it smoky and polluting when wood is burned?
In December, we posted a short time-lapse video of a large pile of burning woody debris. It was the material left after the logs big enough to be milled into lumber and logs too small for lumber were chipped to make paper or cardboard had been removed.
The trees were removed as part of a restoration and wildfire risk reduction harvest on some Nature Conservancy and two family forest owners’ land. In full disclosure, I was one of the neighbors.
This is a good example of material that should be used for energy production. It breaks my heart to see all that energy wasted, greenhouse gases released with no benefits and lots of black soot and other pollutants being generated. It doesn’t have to be that way, if you have a market for the material. We lost our market after the local pulp mill shut down seven years ago. It had a combined heat and power plant that ran on waste wood that burned ~300,000 tons of this kind of material.
Enjoy this important series of stories as you stay warm by the crackling fire … or the natural gas heating duct, as the case may be. Share with your friends, family and colleagues.
Lastly, I encourage you to submit a Travel Through Trees article of one of your favorite forests or trees to visit.