Wood Energy Challenges
Article #158, June 2010
By Bill Cook
I suppose there’s little doubt that the nature of our future energy economy will look quite different than what it does today. How that future energy economy might appear in a couple decades is speculative. Assuredly, it won’t be built in a short time but, rather, evolve through time. And, whether that construction is done using an intelligent strategy remains to be seen.
Many strategizers and builders appear to focus on a few themes. Stop using so much fossil fuel, especially petroleum. Increase conservation and efficiency. Use local resources. Keep the economy and jobs local. Multiple energy supply sources make sense. Sometimes small is better than gigantic.
In Michigan, especially northern Michigan, using more wood energy makes sense in so many ways. However, like any proposition, there are challenges. Interestingly, these challenges can be categorized using the same labels as the three pillars of sustainability; economy, socio-cultural, and environmental.
While each of the three categories has challenges, it’s the socio-cultural area that appears the toughest and most complicated.
Among the socio-cultural challenges, the toughest three may be; 1) too many people think cutting trees is bad, 2) misperceptions of the economic and environmental impacts, and 3) the innate human resistance to change. I suppose a fourth could be added – the policy and regulatory environment – but on the other hand, that’s mostly a result of the first three, with its own peculiar twist.
Cutting trees too often evokes misplaced concern about environmental degradation. Usually, perhaps, this concern is caused by a change in visual quality (especially a clearcut), even though visual quality is a particularly lousy yardstick of ecological integrity. Even by engaging all the science that goes into modern forest management, the notion persists that cutting trees is inherently bad. Errant perspectives such as this are not based on knowledge of science. They come from elsewhere.
Wood energy proposals are commonly met with a range of misperceptions about the particular technology and environmental effects. For example, wood energy facilities create air pollution. Modern facilities do not produce significant levels of pollution when using long-standing current technology. These facilities are not like the backyard outdoor burners that smoke-up the neighborhood. Yet, the fear of air pollution is voiced at nearly every public forum that I’m aware of.
Also cited at these public meetings is the idea that forests will be devastated. There are no facts to support this perception and volumes to support the opposite. There are, in defense of the fear-mongers, certain situations, mostly local, where special precautions need to be taken, beyond the usual precautions associated with timber harvesting. In fact, the concern lies more along the lines of not having enough forest owners sell their timber, rather than Godzilla ravaging the landscape.
Lastly, most people just don’t like to see change, at least according to social scientists, especially those studies that assess natural resource perceptions. Unfortunately, forests are a dynamic resource that will change whether people like it or not. The idea behind forest management is to purposefully direct that change, using ecological principles, to benefit forest owners and society at large. Benign neglect, or doing nothing, will too often result in negative outcomes. And, corrective actions are much more difficult than regular management.
Using more wood to create more heat, power, and transportation fuel is a social change that will be difficult for many to accept. This was true in several northern European countries that went through this process in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, countries such as Sweden and Denmark are leaders in renewable energy, especially wood energy. Michigan would not be among the first to go down this wood energy road. It’s been successfully done before.
Michigan is rich in wood resources. Nobody is suggesting our forests be liquidated for short-term gain. Those days are long past, although bad examples still occur, mostly on private ownerships. A portion of Michigan’s energy future could include wood, along with a suite of other technologies, as well as better conservation and efficiencies.
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Bill Cook is an MSU Extension forester providing educational programming for the entire Upper Peninsula. His office is located at the MSU Upper Peninsula Tree Improvement Center near Escanaba. The Center is the headquarters for three MSU Forestry properties in the U.P., with a combined area of about 8,000 acres. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 906-786-1575.
by Bill Cook, Forester/Biologist, Michigan State University Extension, 6005
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