Electricity from Wood (WSJ 12-2-93)

Jim Hurst jhurst at renfield.mentorg.com
Thu Dec 2 21:17:12 EST 1993

I came across an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal
today, 12-2-93, which is summarized below.  There's nothing
like the real thing, interested people are advised to rush out
and read the original, as always.  My comments are in [].  




    "Electric Utilities Study an Old, New Source of Fuel:  Firewood"

	Fast-Growing 'Super Trees' Burn Clean, May Outstrip Solar
	Panels, Windmills.

	From Sprig to 15 Feet in a Year.

Begin Summary:

New York State Electric & Gas Corp. is burning old telephone poles and
railroad ties, grinding them to chips and mixing them with coal, which
has cut sulfur emissions in half.  But demand is outstripping supply 
for industrial and sawmill waste.

Looking for new supplies, utilities are planning to grow their wood on
a large scale, ie, millions of acres of fast growing hybrids of various

John Ferrell, DOE wood researcher, predicts supertree projects will
take 15% of the $60 B electric power fuel market within 20 years.
It's cheaper than wind or solar PV, not so air-fouling as fossil fuels,

[recall that using wood in this matter is effectively carbon cycling,
so is CO2 neutral aside from the amount of carbon sequestered at once,
as far as I can tell.  Am I missing subtleties here?]

and not so scary as nukes.  Wood currently has ~1% market share.  It's 
stockpilable and renewable.  NYS Electric is trying out a 100 acre plot 
of willows at SUNY Syracuse that grew from 10 inch sprigs to 15 foot 
trees in a year.

Utilities, independent power producers, & self-sufficient manufacturers
have invested $10 B since 1980, 40% more than the combined total for 
solar and wind.  Some 1,050 wood-burning plants are up and running, 
most with only enough juice to power a factory or office building.  But
DOE says their combined output is equivalent to 3 large nukes.

Burning wood has an image problem as a producer of black smoke.  The new
plants use high temp techniques, boilers that concentrate heat by 
controlling O2 and fuel, with catalytic converters to clean gases and
electrostatic filters that grab most particulates.  There is still 
smoke, but it is reportedly grayish white and mostly steam.  The fast
growing trees are relatively clean-burning to begin with, without the
toxics that wood scrap may contain:  paint, volatile organics, or 
metals.  The hardwoods also burn cleaner than conifers [the sap is 
water, not turpentine style VOC goo].

These little wood-burners draw praise from operators:  less acid in the
flue gas, so easier on boiler tubes, less maintenance, more fun.  
Example:  46 megawatts (~50K homes) from Washington Water & Power, in
Kettle Falls, WA.

Wood looks attractive relative to wind and solar.  Solar PV is stalled
by high purchase and maintenance costs, wood is 1/3 the price.  Mobil
is trying to sell it's solar R & D data and equipment after 19 years and
$100M.  Mobil spokesperson says Mobil doesn't see utilities making 
large scale use of solar energy "for some years."

Wind is facing a backlash from bird kills and viewshed impact.

[Hey, I think they're kinda cute.  A few thousand big windmills would 
definitely spruce up the Midwest.  Anyway...]  

Wood is winning acceptance and investment from unlikely sources.
Westinghouse Electric, once the largest builder of nukes, is in 
negotiations to build a more efficient wood burner that uses 
gasification. Frank Bevc, Westinhouse spokes, says, "In the future,
we're as likely to be a high-tech wood company  as a nuclear plant


Replacing nukes offers the best potential for woodburners.  Economic
problems from high maintenance costs have closed 15 nukes with a 
supposed 40-year life cycle after an average dozen years.  DOE folks
say privately that 25% of the remaining ones may retire in the 
next decade.

Worries of denuded forests eliminated wood as an industrial fuel in the 
late 60s.  Trees emit carbon but less than coal, say environmentalists.
DOE says O2 produced more than makes up for it.

 [Duh, isn't it consumed right back at combustion time?]  

DOE budget for wood planting and high tech burning triples to $50M 
since 1990.  Clinton promises more support for it in his energy plan. 

Woodburners are played down by utility press releases, and referred
to as "biomass" even though 88% of biomass is wood.  This is partly a
PR thing, says EPRI spokes, wood just doesn't sound scientific enough.

A MN farmer planted 80 acres of cloned one inch poplar seedlings two 
years ago and now has 10 foot trees, and hopes there's a market.  USDA
and utilities are planning 1000 acres with 25 farmers next spring.
Utilities in MN are hoping to develop a way to burn 6 foot lengths, 
to skip the expensive grinding step.  This would look attractive to 
utilities that have to pulverize coal chunk at a time.

Audubon Society says with concern, that to replace 1/2 of US nukes
would require 40 million acres of trees, or 12% of current US cropland.
Audubon warns of upsetting natural diversity by taking over grasslands
and other ecosystems.  Advocates contend that these are mere 
landscaping challenges, and that native hybrids are being developed from
eucalyptus in FL [eucs, native? hmph, I doubt it], mesquites in TX, 
sycamore in TN, maples in IL, poplars in WA, and willows in NY.  

As important as height is ability to grow densely, crammed a foot apart.
Hybrids may be harvested yearly, and regen from roots.  Current yield
is 9 tons/acre/annum, 10 years ago it was 5, natural yield is about 1,
says the SUNY researcher.  NYS Electric is considering converting some
of their six coal soot-blowers to wood, so they can write a check to
local farmers instead of PA mines.

One researcher said he scoffed at the supertrees until a forester gave
him a twig to plant.  "The thing grew to the rooftop in one year, and
here we are with big furnaces to fire.  I thought, well, why not wood?"

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