In defense of wood energy
There is a growing mythology among some who profess a concern about healthy forests and our energy future that wood is bad as a fuel for energy, and that we in the northeastern United States are foolish to include wood in the mix of fuels that can sustain our energy future. The first myth is that wood is not renewable and that burning wood for energy will lead to a wholesale liquidation cutting of our forests. The forests of New Hampshire naturally grow about one-half cord per acre per year. Of New Hampshire’s 5.7 million acres, about 4.85 million are growing trees. This means that about 2.425 million cords a year of wood is added to our total forest inventory each year through natural growth. In the most recent year for which data is available, the total timber harvest in New Hampshire was 1.3 million cords, or just a bit more than 50 percent of total growth. Our current forest products economy is consuming less than annual growth and natural regeneration each year consistently exceeds consumption.Managed sustainably, New Hampshire’s forests have a capacity to provide more fuel for energy tomorrow than they do today. The carbon debt from burning wood chips is repaid promptly and in full when the wood is harvested from sustainably managed forests. Moreover, a sustainable forest products economy helps private landowners keep forests as forests, with all their ecological and recreational benefits.The second myth is that the generation of electricity with wood generates more carbon dioxide than the burning of coal. Schiller Station’s 50-megawatt wood boiler in Newington, converted from a coal boiler with the same 50-megawatt capacity in 2006, has emitted nearly the same volume of carbon dioxide as a wood plant as it did as a coal plant – according to records maintained by the state Department of Environmental Services.The third myth is that the United States can meet all of its energy demands solely from solar, wind, geothermal and investments in energy efficiency. We certainly can do much better with renewable energy and conservation, but even if we maximized what the economy could do with each we still need more than each of these sources can deliver. As a domestically produced renewable, using wood energy is in our national and local interests.There is a public policy challenge with wood as a source for energy, specifically as it relates to motivating consumers to use wood to get the most efficient use of the fuel. There is a credible argument that generating electricity is the least efficient use of wood to generate energy. The challenge is to create economic incentives for future consumers to use wood wisely while not pulling the rug out from existing incentives that are being used as intended — to reduce dependence on nonrenewable fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas.The Forest Society owns more than 50,000 acres of woodlands in 95 New Hampshire communities. We manage these forests sustainably, for a variety of forest products (including wood chips for energy markets). About 60 percent of our standing wood inventory is “low grade” meaning that the individual trees will never be marketable as sawlogs (the high end of wood products from the forest). These low-grade trees do have a market as pulp for the paper industry and as fuel for energy markets. The resource is renewable, and if managed properly, can provide a sustainable supply of fuel for the indefinite future.The wise use of our forest resources wisely will never be a silver bullet for our energy needs. But they can and should be part of the diversity of fuels that get us to the better place a progressive national energy policy should take us.Here in New Hampshire especially, we must resist self-serving out-of-state interests who fail to see the long-term environmental benefit of sustainable forest management. Let us not be tree-wise but forest-foolish.Jane A. Difley is president/forester of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.