EcoWatch Journal — February/March 2011
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Burning Trees Is Not The Answer
Cheryl Johncox

We all grew up knowing that planting a tree was one of the best things we could do to clean the air. It still is, which makes utility companies’ plans to cut, chip and burn trees to make energy that much more disturbing.

The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio has given the green light to utility companies to burn trees and call it clean and green “renewable” energy. Nine utilityscale power plants in Ohio want to burn trees as “biomass” on the order of some 2,100 megawatts (MW). While 2,100 MW represents only a tiny fraction of Ohio’s total energy production, supplying that much fuel from Ohio’s forests would have devastating consequences. For some perspective, 351 square miles of forest would have to be clearcut every year just to supply this much wood fuel.

Utilities like to argue that trees are a renewable fuel source. However, if the goal of renewable energy projects and energy efficiency is to cut carbon in the atmosphere, then burning trees is akin to the corn ethanol debacle—only much worse. When you clearcut trees and burn them not only does the forest floor release carbon dioxide (CO2) for 30 years or more, but all the CO2 stored in the burned trees is released in one tremendous belch. Conservative estimates suggest that it would likely take at least 30 to 90 years for such a belch of CO2 to be re-sequestered in growing forests.

Some trade groups and even utility companies say they will be using switchgrass to generate electricity, but this is largely misinformation. While biomass pellets may contain some amount of switchgrass, the percentage is usually low. Test burns and research indicate that agricultural crops and grasses are much more acidic and contain higher levels of chlorine than wood—both making it difficult to meet emission limits and causing corrosion and fouling in boilers.

Therefore, the fuel of choice is mostly chipped and pelleted trees. This fact is reflected in utility application documents.

There is currently no government agency in Ohio looking at where these trees will come from, or what the impact will be on air and water resources. In 1900, Ohio contained just 10 percent of its original forest cover because of cutting to supply iron furnaces and promote westward expansion.Are we prepared to make that sacrifice again just so utility companies can generate “renewable” energy credits?