Woody Biomass Utilization
Creating a healthier, more fire resistant forests by harvesting woody biomass
Beverly B. Voelkelt
B.O.R. Consulting - Copyright © 2011
Part One: General Thoughts and Considerations
Until the advent of consequent and widespread use of fossil fuels, notably the use of coal in the mid 1800s, wood was the primary energy source for heating and industrial purposes. Railroads used wood to fire the boilers of locomotives, blacksmiths used charcoal fires to mold iron, cooking and heating was done with wood stoves. Fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) gradually replaced the use of wood as an energy source because they were more convenient and of the favorable embedded energy density, which meant greater economic gains. Today this picture is changing rapidly. Technological advances in extracting most of the energy embedded in wood makes the use of woody biomass, among other renewable sources, a viable alternative for fossil fuels.
Fossil fuels are by definition finite energy sources. Oil, natural gas, coal and even uranium are available on this planet in defined quantities only. Once they are used, they cannot be replenished – hence the term “non-renewable” energy sources. Wood, on the other hand, is a renewable fuel and energy source. Forests and brush lands keep growing with the availability of sunlight, water and soil based nutrients. Managed in a sustainable manner they will yield fuel and energy for as long as these three fundamental prerequisites are given.
In a study evaluating the long term outlook for challenges facing the United States armed forces in the future, this was written about the fossil fuel oil:
“To meet even the conservative growth rates posited in the economics
section [of this paper], global energy production would need to rise by
1.3% per year. By the 2030's, demand is estimated to be nearly 50%
greater than today. To meet that demand, even assuming more
effective conservation measures, the world would need to add roughly
the equivalent of Saudi Arabia’s current energy production every seven
Source - United States Joint Forces Command, "Ready For Today;
Preparing For Tomorrow", February 2010
That the world will discover oil reserves equal that of Saudi Arabia’s present output every seven years is not going to happen. Fossil fuels, especially oil, are getting more expensive because of increased global demand for energy by emerging economies. Oil today is harder and more risky to find and extract; and oil requires much more energy to transport and process, as its availability shrinks. In addition to these factors driving up the price of oil and other fossil fuels, one needs to add the external cost of environmental degradation (tar sand production, etc), pollution (carbon dioxide, etc) and the political cost of dealing with the sensitive and volatile regions around the world. Furthermore, without significant direct and indirect subsides fossil fuels would already be so expensive that economies globally would suffer even more than they do in today's "great recession".
In his essay “Nuclear Energy Belongs Into The Technical Museum”, Dr. Hermann Scheer, Nobel laureate, chief architect of Germany’s renowned Renewable Energy Act and former nuclear industry systems analyst, writes about the incredible subsidies given just to the nuclear industry in the OECD countries (the United States is a member of this organization) in order to make nuclear power economically viable.
“The use of nuclear energy is the result of a gigantic political machinery
of subsidies and privileges. For research and development of nuclear
power until 1973, OECD governments donated over 150 billion dollars
to nuclear energy. Between 1974 and 1992 an additional 168 billion
dollars were given to nuclear power industries. The lavish subsidies of
the European Union are not included here and the French numbers are
still a state secret. Together with a multitude of “market introduction aids”
and the subsidies of the non-OECD countries, notably those of the former
Soviet Union, the total subsidies for nuclear energy amount to at least one
Source - Dr. Hermann Scheer, (Die Zeit, No. 32, 2004, Editorial)
Moreover, there is the ongoing debate over the direct and indirect subsides to oil companies, the most profitable enterprises in the history of the world, despite their mind boggling profits that rise in equal proportion with the increase in the barrel price of oil. Thus, in a serious analysis one realizes that fossil fuel energy sources are anything but cheap. We just don’t realize that we are already paying much more for it than what meets the eye when we look at our gasoline, electricity or gas bills. Because such subsides tilted the playing field in favor of companies involved in fossil fuel energy over half a century ago, we automatically assume the prices for fossil fuel energy are fair market prices and perceive renewable energy sources as expensive.
The above examples of fossil fuel energy scarcity and industry subsides clearly point to the need of further developing alternative, renewable energy sources at a rapid pace. As already pointed out, technology is no longer an obstacle – thanks to the aggressive introduction of renewable energy in Europe, which also promotes advances in research and development that benefit the economical use of renewable energy.
According to Eurobserver, an organization tracking renewable energy statistics, solid biomass (wood, brush, etc) now accounts for 66.1% of Europe’s renewable energy mix. In the year 2002 use of solid woody biomass represented an oil energy heat equivalent of 44 million tons and 25.3 TWh (Terra-watt hours) of electricity. By 2009 that number grew to 72.8 Mtep (Mega-ton equivalent of Petrol [oil]) of heat energy and 62.2 TWh of electricity. In addition, five jobs are created for every 1000 tons of biomass consumed, compared with 1.3 in the natural gas and oil sectors.
Europe’s leaders in woody biomass utilization are Germany, France, Sweden and Finland. Except for the Scandinavian countries, central European countries are densely populated and Europeans love their forests as much as Americans love theirs. They would be up in arms if woody biomass utilization would destroy their precious forests. However, this is not the case because woody biomass harvesting is integrated in the over all sustainable forest management approach.
Thus, it is possible to utilize a forest’s energy sources without causing an environmental catastrophe. Quite to the contrary, carefully thinning forests of unwanted trees and brush enhances forests by promoting stronger individual tree vitality and facilitating old growth trees. It also makes the trees more resistant to insects, disease and fire. This is especially important for the forests of Southern California that are so prone to suffer from droughts and severe wildfires. Also see "What is at Stake?" for a more elaborate look at wildfire impact.
The beauty of renewable energy is the fact that is generated locally, also called distributed generation, using the natural and renewable resources available at the local level. For the mountain communities of Southern California this means using solar, wind and biomass to generate thermal and electric energy. The energy is produced locally and for the local market first, only production surplus will enter the general grid. As we saw in the European example on solid biomass, durable and good paying jobs are created locally, supporting the local economy.
The federal government under the present administration has developed an ambitious outline to dramatically increase the share of renewable energy in the country’s total energy mix by 2035. To back up this desire, the administration committed billions of dollars in stimulus money to make this goal reality. On the state level the past and present governors are strong proponents of renewable energy. Recently Governor Brown issued a new mandate to California’s public utilities, expecting them to use at least 30% of renewable energy in their energy mix by the year 2020. All this is very promising and an indication that there is a serious desire to advance the use of renewable energy in order to lay a foundation for a sustainable, solar energy based economy ..... the kind envisioned by Dr. Herman Scheer in his remarkable book “The Solar Economy”.
Part Two will examine the possibilities for woody biomass utilization in the San Bernardino Mountains .