To the Editor:

Paul and Cynthia Stancioff’s column Energy Matters is certainly a heartfelt assessment; however, the Stanicoffs appear to misunderstand the science of wood, its use as biogenic fuel, and the ephemeral nature of the carbon cycle. We are an ambitious species, one that has developed our planet to an unprecedented extent with little consideration of over-arching consequences. To reverse this tide of climate change, we must curb our diet of fossil fuel and embrace renewable energy in all its varied forms.

It goes without saying that elevating carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is one of the prime causal factors of global warming and subsequent climate change (destructive weather). However, before fingers are pointed, we must determine the origins of this gaseous carbon. The truth is that all living things are primarily composed of carbon, you are, I am, and so are trees.

However, we are only temporary stewards of this carbon as upon our demise, this biological carbon will again be liberated into circulation. This however is not the case for geologic carbon, as it is locked deep underground (coal, oil, and gas), out of circulation, and as such unwelcome in our atmosphere.

It may therefore come as a surprise to many that rotting wood (biological decomposition) will release exactly the same carbon dioxide as burning wood (thermally decomposition). Remembering the rules of organic chemistry, we can see that both are oxidative (adding oxygen) reactions where two oxygen atoms are able to liberate a carbon atom (O+O+C = CO2). Similarities between these parallel reactions don’t stop there, as both break the same cellulosic covalent bonds.

Therefore, rotting wood and burning wood also release exactly the same heat. We can now start to appreciate how wood heating is deemed (by some) to be carbon neutral….the carbon is biogenic (part of the carbon cycle – not fossil) and as such inevitably going to be released anyway.

Therefore suggesting, as the Stancioffs do, that we must wait for trees to regrow (re-sequester) is simply missing the most important distinction. Biogenetic carbon belongs in living things and the air, it’s part of the natural rhythm of nature …geologic (fossil) carbon should stay locked away. Let’s not get distracted from the true cause of climate change.

Adding to the complexity/renewability of the situation is that the majority of the wood pellets produced in New England are made from waste wood such as sawdust, utility trimmings, and municipal green waste. In fact, the University of Massachusetts Amherst has estimated that within Massachusetts, the tree care industry produces 1 to 3 million tons of wood chips per year.

This material is unavoidably created (remember powerlines and sidewalks must be protected), providing pellet mills enormous quantities of clear-conscience-carbon, biogenic feedstock.

Despite the empirical evidence of carbon neutrality, it is perfectly reasonable to question the sensibility of transporting wood pellets from North Carolina to Europe. However, we must frame this transaction through a lens crafted by the fossil fuel industry.

Once it became clear that carbon accounting would influence policy, fossil lobbyists ensured that only point-of-use emissions (stack/tailpipe) would be considered. As such fossil fuel carbon accounting does not include the emissions associated with extraction, refinement, or transportation.

Accordingly in the spirit of an apples-to-apples comparison, wood pellets are not assigned any GHG emissions from the chipping, pellet manufacturing, or shipping. Clearly, this accounting is deeply flawed but at least equally so.

We however can take solace in the understanding that the vast majority of wood fuel consumed in Maine is locally grown and as such under the purview of the Maine DACF. It is also important to recognize that the concerns expressed by the Stancioffs are important.

However, in light of holistic carbon accounting, wood heating should be recognized for its value. Accordingly, it is critical that as we seek to combat climate change we maintain an open mind, challenging personal misconceptions to collectively move away from fossil fuels.

[I am] the founder and owner of Maine Energy Systems located in Bethel. Maine Energy Systems assembles the world’s leading pellet heating technologies (OkoFEN, Austria) and supplies locally milled pellets.

Les Otten


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