Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Support Our Annual Fund Drive! We only shake you down once a year, but when we do we really mean it. It costs a lot to keep the site afloat, and our growing audience, well over TWO million unique viewers a month, eats up a lot of bandwidth — and bandwidth isn’t free. We aren’t supported by corporate donors, advertisers or big foundations. We survive solely on your support.
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Logging for Electricity?

by THOMAS M. POWER

In the trauma associated with the closing of the Missoula paper mill, business and political leaders have been frantically searching for a way to put that industrial mill site back into production, replacing at least some of the lost jobs. One possibility that many have suggested is to use the site for a large wood-fired electric generating facility. The idea is to use the same wood fiber that the mill had been converting into paper as biomass fuel to generate electricity. This would keep loggers busy in the woods and some of the same skilled blue collar workers busy at the mill site firing and tending high pressure boilers and associated machinery.

This is not at all far fetched. The paper mill has been generating electricity for a long time, providing for its own electric needs, providing heat needed in the paper-making process, as well as selling a lot of electricity into the grid. The total electric production has been relatively modest, 17.5 megawatts, only about one percent of NorthWestern Energy’s peak demand. Those enthusiastic about this possibility envision a much larger electric generating operation that would burn a lot more wood.

NorthWestern Energy has indicated an interest in exploring that possibility but has pointed out that the U.S. Forest Service would have to allow a lot more logging in federal forests to fuel such expanded electric generation. That does not worry advocates since they see the beetle-killed trees in many of Montana’s forests as an obvious source of supply. In fact, before the closure of the Missoula paper mill, there was already a buzz within the forest products industry about using forest biomass, that is, trees, to fuel electric generation. That idea is actually built into Senator Tester’s proposed Forest Jobs and Recreation Act and has also been promoted by Governor Schweitzer.

Before getting too enthusiastic about putting a large wood-fired electric generator in the Missoula Valley, there are a lot of problems to puzzle through.

First, wood-fired generation tends to produce considerable air pollutionbecause the wood has less heat value than coal and the conversion of the intrinsic heat value of the wood to electricity is less efficient than when using coal. The complex mix of organic compounds in the wood produces a complex mix of pollutants. Missoula has been struggling to clean up its air for a long time. Assumedly we want be careful not to slide backwards in that.

Second, wood-fired generation is expensive because of the large volume of low-energy wood that has to be hauled considerable distances to the electric generation site. The further it is hauled, the more costly that fuel becomes and the more it embodies diesel fuel rather than biomass. Such electric generation is often economic at lumber and paper mills because waste wood that had already been hauled to the mill or waste materials such as the black liquor produced by paper mills can be used as the fuel. In addition, the waste heat from the electric generation can be used to dry the lumber and paper. Large stand-alone wood-fired electric generators often are very high cost sources of electricity that are used only when no cheaper source is available. Avista Utilities’ Kettle Falls wood-fired generator in eastern Washington is a good example. Wood-fired generation often is not economic. That is especially true if there are no government subsidies available.

Third, for a half-century or more to come, the impact of burning trees to generate electricity means increasing the release of carbon into the atmosphere. While it is true that if new forests grow up to replace the burned trees, carbon will slowly be removed from the atmosphere, in Montana’s slow growing forests, that will take many, many decades. Meanwhile we will be making the greenhouse gas problem worse, not better.

Fourth, as NorthWestern Energy has pointed out, this could require a substantial increase in logging on public lands. Logging and the roads required to support it have significant impacts on water quality, soil erosion, and wildlife. This fundamental fact has been recently obscured by the increasingly shrill claims that our forests are in desperate need a lot more logging to make them “healthy,” to fight bark beetle infestations, and to reduce wildfire danger that threatens our homes and our towns.

These scary stories of what will happen if we do not log our forests are largely based on “rural myth,” supported by timber interests, and built around the fantasy of natural forests as a open, park-like areas, full of very large, towering trees. In comparison, our contemporary forests are degenerative dense thickets of relatively thin trees that, we are told, are the result of some combination of the failure to log and thin the forests or misguided fire suppression. For most of our forests, this simply is not true.

It is far cheaper to protect our homes and communities by managing the vegetation within a few dozen feet of our homes and by maintaining our homes so as to reduce the likelihood of fire ignition. That is much less costly and much more likely to work that trying to fire-proof millions of acres of forestland.

As important, all of those trees out there, whether healthy, dying, or dead, are not, in and of themselves, dangerous fuels. Recall all the pictures you have seen of forests that have burned. Those lands are characterized by the standing trunks of the trees. In addition, all of the trees do not burn. Wildfires create a mosaic of heavily burned, lightly burned, and unburned lands that lay the basis for natural regeneration of our forests. Fires and insects may kill a lot of trees, but they do not kill forests. If they did, we would not have the forests that surround us now.

We need to look carefully and critically at any proposal to turn our forests into wood mines for electric generation and our river valleys into sewers into which to dump large quantities of air pollution. Maybe the problems can be worked out; maybe not. Whatever we do, we should not simply assume that wood-fired generation is “green.” That would be the worst sort of “green-washing.”

Dr. Thomas Michael Power is the author of Lost Landscapes and Failed Economies: the Search for a Value of Place and Post-Cowboy Economics: Pay and Prosperity in the New American West. is former Chair of the Economics Department at the University of Montana, where he currently serves as a Research Professor.

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

September 28, 2016
Eric Draitser
Stop Trump! Stop Clinton!! Stop the Madness (and Let Me Get Off)!
Ted Rall
The Thrilla at Hofstra: How Trump Won the Debate
Robert Fisk
Cliché and Banality at the Debates: Trump and Clinton on the Middle East
Patrick Cockburn
Cracks in the Kingdom: Saudi Arabia Rocked by Financial Strains
Lowell Flanders
Donald Trump, Islamophobia and Immigrants
Shane Burley
Defining the Alt Right and the New American Fascism
Jan Oberg
Ukraine as the Border of NATO Expansion
Ramzy Baroud
Ban Ki-Moon’s Legacy in Palestine: Failure in Words and Deeds
David Swanson
How We Could End the Permanent War State
Sam Husseini
Debate Night’s Biggest Lie Was Told by Lester Holt
Laura Carlsen
Ayotzinapa’s Message to the World: Organize!
Binoy Kampmark
The Triumph of Momentum: Re-Electing Jeremy Corbyn
David Macaray
When the Saints Go Marching In
Seth Oelbaum
All Black Lives Will Never Matter for Clinton and Trump
Adam Parsons
Standing in Solidarity for a Humanity Without Borders
Cesar Chelala
The Trump Bubble
September 27, 2016
Louisa Willcox
The Tribal Fight for Nature: From the Grizzly to the Black Snake of the Dakota Pipeline
Paul Street
The Roots are in the System: Charlotte and Beyond
Jeffrey St. Clair
Idiot Winds at Hofstra: Notes on the Not-So-Great Debate
Mark Harris
Clinton, Trump, and the Death of Idealism
Mike Whitney
Putin Ups the Ante: Ceasefire Sabotage Triggers Major Offensive in Aleppo
Anthony DiMaggio
The Debates as Democratic Façade: Voter “Rationality” in American Elections
Binoy Kampmark
Punishing the Punished: the Torments of Chelsea Manning
Paul Buhle
Why “Snowden” is Important (or How Kafka Foresaw the Juggernaut State)
Jack Rasmus
Hillary’s Ghosts
Brian Cloughley
Billions Down the Afghan Drain
Lawrence Davidson
True Believers and the U.S. Election
Matt Peppe
Taking a Knee: Resisting Enforced Patriotism
James McEnteer
Eugene, Oregon and the Rising Cost of Cool
Norman Pollack
The Great Debate: Proto-Fascism vs. the Real Thing
Michael Winship
The Tracks of John Boehner’s Tears
John Steppling
Fear Level Trump
Lawrence Wittner
Where Is That Wasteful Government Spending?
James Russell
Beyond Debate: Interview Styles of the Rich and Famous
September 26, 2016
Diana Johnstone
The Hillary Clinton Presidency has Already Begun as Lame Ducks Promote Her War
Gary Leupp
Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Against Russia
Dave Lindorff
Parking While Black: When Police Shoot as First Resort
Robert Crawford
The Political Rhetoric of Perpetual War
Howard Lisnoff
The Case of One Homeless Person
Michael Howard
The New York Times Endorses Hillary, Scorns the World
Russell Mokhiber
Wells Fargo and the Library of Congress’ National Book Festival
Chad Nelson
The Crime of Going Vegan: the Latest Attack on Angela Davis
Colin Todhunter
A System of Food Production for Human Need, Not Corporate Greed
Brian Cloughley
The United States Wants to Put Russia in a Corner
Guillermo R. Gil
The Clevenger Effect: Exposing Racism in Pro Sports
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail
[i]
[i]
[i]
[i]