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An Idea Too Big to Fail
By Barbara Coyner
Our rural power company magazine recently ran an interesting chart delineating the fuel mix that generated the area’s power in 2011. Clearwater Power serves about 8,200 member households and is part of the larger Bonneville Power (BPA) grid, which gets its power as shown in the chart to the right.
Interestingly enough, much of the Northwest served by the BPA is forested, with several traditional timber towns in the mix. Although woody biomass could never compete with hydro power in the region, its potential as a green power source continues to lag. During the recent wildfire season, much of the biomass material went up in smoke instead of making green energy, impacting air quality standards as well.
While solar and wind get the national spotlight, such sources can be somewhat intermittent. By contrast, woody biomass power can be consistent, as demonstrated by the large Avista power plant at Kettle Falls, Wash. More than 25 years old, the plant could run every day if there were a more reliable supply of woody biomass.
Because the government is able to pick winners and losers in power generation by use of subsidies and taxation, some questions arise. Could the government perhaps loosen its grip on federal timber, making more woody biomass available? And could contractors possibly receive better tax breaks for bringing biomass to market? Some of this is being done now on a limited scale, but with the byproduct of healthier, more fire-resistant forests as part of the bargain, it stands to reason that there should be even more done to promote woody biomass power. As Jim Petersen of Evergreen Magazine says, “A person would have to be a damned fool not to see and understand the great biomass potential lying around — quite literally — in western federal forests.”
Look to Our Neighbors
How does industry crank it up a notch in terms of pushing woody biomass? First, we could use our neighbors to the north as Exhibit A of how to do things right. Canada is not apologizing for logging and processing its bug-killed trees and overstocked stands, and the country has ramped up its efforts to use its stores of woody biomass efficiently in its energy portfolio.
BC Hydro, for example, committed a couple of years ago to increasing woody biomass as a significant source. Moreover, the utility actually educates the public, posting scientific explanations such as the following on its website:
Green biomass technologies involve controlled combustion of a renewable source of biomass. Pollution control equipment is used to capture the particulates, sulfur oxides, and nitrous oxides that result from combustion. The carbon dioxide generated during combustion is consumed as new plants grow. As a result, provided there is a sustainable source of biomass created through replanting, the net contribution of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere is zero, and the process does not contribute to global warming.
While Canada forges ahead with its sensible “use it or lose it” mentality, the U.S. dithers, frequently deferring to activists who contend that loggers will overharvest. It’s an old tune. Now, however, some activists are openly admitting they might have gone too far in shutting down timber infrastructure. They fret that forestlands will fall prey to overdevelopment instead, or that there will be no mills or loggers left to thin dense forests near the wildland urban interface.
A Ray of Hope
One bright spot among innovative activists is Blue Knight Group, a Colorado-based nonprofit intent on using the huge amount of beetle-killed wood just waiting to torch up in the state’s dying pine forests. Currently conducting feasibility studies at Copper Mountain Resort and Arapahoe Basin, the group hopes to use biomass broilers to create sustainable energy in existing inefficient buildings.
Rich Dziomba, Blue Knight’s director, has a vision of off-setting the dead trees from the epidemic with biomass projects that would create sustainable energy. “In my mind, there is a perfect model for utilizing fallen and dead trees affected by the bark-beetle epidemic,” Dziomba said.
Although many see the practicality of woody biomass power, there seems to be ongoing hesitation. When we heard “too big to fail” in terms of the auto industry or the banking conglomerates, politicians shifted into high gear to save them immediately. Meanwhile the timber industry waits, capable of addressing three critical issues in our nation: jobs, green energy, and wildfire prevention. Does the collective yawn from politicians tell us that timber industry infrastructure is considered disposable? Or can we anticipate some help from the government in the form of further incentives to bring more biomass power on line?
Now Is the Time
We can’t wait forever while small start-ups gamble with precious capital, only to have regulations changed midway. Simply okaying a small biomass project here and there won’t approach the great potential that exists. Might the Forest Service officials fast track more biomass development on federal lands, especially in the wildland urban interface? Can the nation’s books be better balanced by granting more subsidies and tax credits for practical biomass generation rather than passing the hat for huge firefighting budgets each year?
With another election at hand, the timber industry needs to speak up. Not necessarily through paid lobbyists, but through actual practitioners in the trade. This might even be a time in which industry people and true conservationists can form strong alliances, because some in the environmental movement truly do regret putting small mills and valuable infrastructure out of business. They now see that the alternative outcome has too frequently been irresponsible land development or the unintentional promotion of mega corporations at the expense of smaller mom and pop operations.
The message of the new energy messiahs should be clear: The question is no longer, “What is the carbon footprint?” but rather “What is the hold-up?” The nation has run out of excuses for not promoting woody biomass in the green energy portfolio. The idea is simply too big to fail!
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