We write this column and call it Energy Matters because it does.  Energy does matter.  In fact at this point in the history of life on Earth, it matters, arguably, more than just about anything.

It matters because the human component of the planet community has gotten us into something of a predicament by fashioning an entire civilization on a structure dependent on a constant diet of high-density energy from fossil sources of carbon based-fuel.

The predicament is that the destructive effects of this deployment of fossil fuels are heading human civilization rapidly and inexorably towards doom, dragging all other earthly communities with it.  Our energy needs constitute an addiction, withdrawal from which seems impossible.

There must be a way out of this predicament, we say!  But so far no one seems to have a simple treatment.  If it is even possible, it is very, very complicated and we know we don’t have time to waste going down blind alleys.

One blind alley humans seem to be blundering around in is Biomass from Wood Pellets as a green energy solution.  For years, the oft-repeated trope has been “sustainable biomass for the benefit of the atmosphere and rural economies of forested regions.”

Inquiring minds have been tempted to ask, “Wait, if the problem is too much carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere, how can burning ANYTHING help the atmosphere?”  To which the routinely offered explanation is, ‘Trees grow back. Trees use carbon dioxide for photosynthesis and keep it out of the air for as long as they live.”

Meanwhile we learn that the Kyoto Protocol’s acceptance of wood pellet biomass as an emissions reduction tactic was based on analytical errors.  They simply didn’t understand how long it takes to achieve carbon neutrality using wood for fuel. Consequently, wood pellet biomass currently serves as the chief element (59%) of European Union states’ “renewable” energy operations, with similar rates in Japan and South Korea.

Rural communities imagine they are benefiting from this reputedly sustainable industry.  Take North Carolina. There are 5 wood pellet factories that have for 8 years harvested 60,000 acres of forest annually (whole, mature trees, clearcut)–just in North Carolina–to make wood pellets for export as biomass fuel. These are burned in electricity generating coal plants in Europe and are counted as carbon neutral even though they emit more greenhouse gas than a coal fired plant. (Justin Catanoso, environmental journalist and professor at Wake Forest University, 2/10/21 interview, Mongabay.com).

How fast does 60,000 acres of mature trees grow back enough to balance the carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere when they’re burned?  Oddly enough, it turns out it takes as long to replace as it took to grow.  That is, with mature trees, 50-100 years.  You could hasten this by replanting greater acreage than you’ve harvested; for example, replant 120,000 acres and it will only take 25-50 years to reabsorb the carbon the biomass pellets produced. That is not happening in places like North Carolina.

Note that you can never regrow faster than you burn, so in no case can burning wood pellets from whole trees instead of fossil fuels be a strategy to reduce emissions.

Also note that no one is being required to even try to regrow in the U.S. what is burned in the E.U.  Thus the E.U.’s accounting about their emissions reductions through use of renewables is almost laughable. But we aren’t laughing!

So far Maine seems, on paper at least, to be balancing its harvest/regrowth math reasonably well.  According to the Center for Research on Sustainable Forests at the University of Maine, we seemingly break even carbon-wise. That is to say the total stored biomass is roughly constant, thus maintaining the forest-based economic sector of Maine. (This does not mean we are carbon neutral–far from it–as we continue to emit CO2 from burning fossil fuels.)

But the real issue is whether wood pellet biomass is even close to a solution when the enormity of our carbon problem demands immediate severe reductions in greenhouse gases world-wide.  The U.S. role as one of the top per capita producers of CO2 should be one of leadership, not opportunism.

Perhaps we could leave the 60,000 acres/year in tree growth! The electrical energy yielded by their pelleted selves could instead be produced by a single 400 acre wind farm, with plenty of trees or food crops growing in between the turbines, or a mere 100 acres of solar panels with sheep grazing between the panels.  If you are ideologically stuck on biomass, raise certain fast-growing perennial crops on as much land as you cut for wood pellets, and the supply is self-renewing for many years.

Solutions to this energy predicament may well involve much economic opportunity for enterprising renewable energy developers.  But the energy dynamics of our predicament won’t wait patiently for the opportunistic and uninformed economic development strategists to get it right.

Paul Stancioff, PhD., is a professor of Physics at the University of Maine Farmington who studies energy economics on the side. Cynthia Stancioff is an observer of nature, including human, who can’t stop editing her own and other people’s writing. Their emails are [email protected] and [email protected] . Previous columns can be found at https://paulandcynthiaenergymatters.blogspot.com/.

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