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:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
May 26, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Anthony DiMaggio
Swamp Politics, Trump Style: “Russiagate” Diverts From the Real White House Scandals
Paul Street
It’s Not Gonna Be Okay: the Nauseating Nothingness of Neoliberal Capitalist and Professional Class Politics
Jeffrey St. Clair
The ICEmen Cometh
Ron Jacobs
The Deep State is the State
Pete Dolack
Why Pence Might be Even Worse Than Trump
Patrick Cockburn
We Know What Inspired the Manchester Attack, We Just Won’t Admit It
Thomas Powell
The Dirty Secret of the Korean War
Mark Ashwill
The Fat Lady Finally Sings: Bob Kerrey Quietly Resigns from Fulbright University Vietnam Leadership Position
John Davis
Beyond Hope
Uri Avnery
The Visitation: Trump in Israel
Ralph Nader
The Left/Right Challenge to the Failed “War on Drugs”
Traci Yoder
Free Speech on Campus: a Critical Analysis
Dave Lindorff
Beware the Supporter Scorned: Upstate New York Trump Voters Hit Hard in President’s Proposed 2018 Budget
Daniel Read
“Sickening Cowardice”: Now More Than Ever, Britain’s Theresa May Must be Held to Account on the Plight of Yemen’s Children
Ana Portnoy
Before the Gates: Puerto Rico’s First Bankruptcy Trial
M. Reza Behnam
Rethinking Iran’s Terrorism Designation
Brian Cloughley
Ukraine and the NATO Military Alliance
Josh Hoxie
Pain as a Policy Choice
David Macaray
Stephen Hawking Needs to Keep His Mouth Shut
Ramzy Baroud
Fear as an Obstacle to Peace: Why Are Israelis So Afraid?
Kathleen Wallace
The Bilious Incongruity of Trump’s Toilet
Seth Sandronsky
Temping Now
Alan Barber – Dean Baker
Blue Collar Blues: Manufacturing Falls in Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania in April
Jill Richardson
Saving America’s Great Places
Richard Lawless
Are Credit Rating Agencies America’s Secret Fifth Column?
Louis Proyect
Venezuela Reconsidered
Murray Dobbin
The NDP’s Singh and Ashton: Flash Versus Vision
Ron Leighton
Endarkenment: Postmodernism, Identity Politics, and the Attack on Free Speech
Anthony Papa
Drug War Victim: Oklahoma’s Larry Yarbrough to be Freed after 23 Years in Prison
Rev. John Dear
A Call to Mobilize the Nation Over the Next 18 Months
Yves Engler
Why Anti-Zionism and Anti-Jewish Prejudice Have to Do With Each Other
Ish Mishra
Political Underworld and Adventure Journalism
Binoy Kampmark
Roger Moore in Bondage
Rob Seimetz
Measuring Manhoods
Edward Curtin
Sorry, You’re Not Invited
Vern Loomis
Winning the Lottery is a State of Mind
Charles R. Larson
Review: Mary V. Dearborn’s “Ernest Hemingway”
David Yearsley
The Ethos of Mayfest
May 25, 2017
Jennifer Matsui
The Rise of the Alt-Center
Michael Hudson
Another Housing Bubble?
Robert Fisk
Trump Meets the New Leader of the Secular World, Pope Francis
John Laforge
Draft Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons Unveiled
Benjamin Dangl
Trump’s Budget Expands War on the Backs of America’s Poor
Alice Donovan
US-Led Air Strikes Killed Record Number of Civilians in Syria
Andrew Moss
The Meaning of Trump’s Wall
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail