As the European Union continues its drive toward reducing its carbon footprint by closing coal plants and substituting biomass (wood chips/pellets) and other renewables, the impact is being felt in the United States.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration in a new report noted that wood exports from the U.S. nearly doubled last year and most of it went to Europe. The United Kingdom alone received over half of this wood in pellet form.
As noted in the July 2014 Power magazine, it is cheaper to transport wood from the United States by ship than it is to ship it from England to Scotland by truck because of the higher trucking carbon footprint and associated taxes.
The U.S. leaders in the wood chip and pellet industries state that their products come from sustainable forests in the form of waste tops, limbs and diseased trees. Up until 2008, the market for wood pellets and chips was largely domestic.
With the EU carbon legislation coming on line, the international market has more than doubled for shipments of wood chips and pellets for co-firing and replacing coal.
Most of us have seen the size of coal piles at one time or another. One needs little imagination to see how big the pile of wood chips would have to be to replace the coal pile, when the heating value of wood is about one-third that of coal.
Anyone who has had large trees removed from his or her property knows how quickly they are converted to chips. One might take a peek at the size of trees being chipped at places like Schenectady County Recycling Center to see the diameter of trees being handled there. With the lure of money, the sustainability aspect may give way to profits.
Think further plunder of tropical forests as well. Biomass magazine provides insights into where all this market is heading. In my opinion, it may be a questionable direction.
We are in a quandary in this country, where environmentalists of all stripes do not want coal, hydrofracking of gas and oil, nuclear power, new hydro and denuding of forests for wood. There is also much resistance to wind power and from large-scale solar.
Perhaps it is time for everyone to calm the extremes of concern and realize the value of all sorts of fuel to our economy. No one I talk to is willing to give up anything in the way of electric power, nor do most of them even pay the extra cost for green energy from their power company. What we have is, “Do it as I say, not as I do, and let me keep all of the niceties of life.”
As a power engineer, I’ve always felt that I was doing something important for society by building power plants and bringing good things to life in the way of electricity. I've traveled to many Third- and Fourth-World countries that do not have power and see how the people scrimp and scrape as they did in this country in the 19th century. In many countries, heat is needed for boiling water to kill bacteria in the water they drink and cook with.
When people need fuel, beautiful parks and the countryside are denuded of trees. This happened all over Europe after World War II and is happening in populated areas of Africa, South America, India, Southeast Asia and China today.
We need all of our sources of energy in a balanced and responsible way. The 19th century won’t work today. Most heat and power came from coal, oil, natural gas, wood and hydropower in yesteryear. Cities were heavily polluted.
Many people think of coal as Pittsburgh in the 1950s, when it was common to see coal dust on cars and everywhere. Today’s technology has made giant steps forward in removing most of the sulfur, particulates and other bad elements from smokestacks.
As we are seeing with the wood pellet industry, the same is true of our coal reserves. If we do not use them here in this country, bear in mind that the products will be shipped overseas to countries that need a low-cost fuel. We cannot stop technological advancements. There will be mistakes made along the way, but they will be correctable and we will learn and get better.
Projects like the Keystone pipeline have received lots of attention, with critics focusing on the tar sands of Canada. However, most of the oil will come from the Bakken oil reserve, which is larger than the reserves of Saudi Arabia. The field covers parts of four states and two provinces in Canada. This is the crude oil people are concerned with being rail-shipped here to Albany. As I've noted before, if it does not come by rail, it will come by truck, because we need fuel.
So with all of our discourses on energy, let's lower the hype and try to look at the overall picture. We will make better decisions for our country that way.
Gerard Havasy of Clifton Park is a retired engineer with over 40 years experience involved in building power plants around the world with experience in nuclear, coal, waste coal, wood, refuse, gas and steam turbine power plants.