Michael Moore’s renewables critique is on the money, but biomass has a place
When I was a kid growing up poor on a farm in a poor rural community, we’d always be on the lookout for bargains and/or free stuff. Nothing beat free stuff. It didn’t have to be exotic or fancy, just useful. The downside of this existence was not inconsequential from an aesthetic perspective, I’m sure, but when the fight is for survival it’s amazing how one’s concerns for the finer things in life tend to get run over without batting an eye.
One glorious day out on the farm, a neighbour showed up with a pile of short chunks of wood in the back of his truck, 2 by 8’s and 2 by 10’s (for the ultra-sophisticates unfamiliar – pieces of wood that were 2 inches think and either 8 or ten inches wide), each piece about one to three feet long. I think he probably came over to show them off. They may not sound exciting to you, but they were like a farm miracle. In any industrial setting, especially with a lot of equipment repairs, there seemed an endless need for these “trim blocks”, they formed perfect stackable units that could support any axle or machine or you name it. Boards that size of any length were too valuable to chop up in pieces. We looked on, mouths agape (we were easily amazed, in hindsight) and said, Where’d you get those?
It turns out they were called trim blocks because they were the waste ends from a saw mill about an hour away. For whatever reason in their production process, vast quantities of these blocks were trimmed off the ends of boards and unceremoniously dumped in big piles along the property edge. They were complete waste to the sawmill, but gold to farmers and mini-industrialists everywhere, who could be seen regularly pulling up to fill up their trucks. Some used the blocks simply for firewood, but a great many piles of the stuff found a useful home.
While that was a long way of saying it, those blocks represented a waste product that has considerable value in some chains, but not in others, and that is, and should be, a great way to introduce biomass into the energy supply mix.
A negative side effect of industrial processes like this sawmill is the creation of waste products, and these can form a perfect base for a biomass facility. Done correctly, a great many things can go into one of these facilities (although tossing in tires, as shown in Michael Moore’s documentary Planet of the Humans, seems a bit of a stretch – doesn’t mean it’s impossible, but when you’re messing around with that sort of thing you’d better do your emissions homework). Modern biomass facilities can incinerate cleanly, so the potential for that as a power source remains.
Additionally, the Moore documentary flagged the insanity of clear-cutting forests to incinerate for power. It is hard to imagine a more environmentally catastrophic usage of a forest than that, but does that rule out all tree-burning activity? Suppose that we began utilizing marginal pieces of land, land that would otherwise remain relatively inert, to grow fast growing species specifically for biomass production. For example, Calgary is currently building a ring road that I can see from my window. The opposing traffic lanes are separated in places by well over a hundred meters, presumably with the gap being left for some future requirements decades down the road. Interchanges seem to have the same physical footprint as a European town, with the road itself only a fraction thereof. I have no idea why planners lock in all that wasted space, but since they do, what if spaces like that had mini-forests planted, that could be harvested in segments for biomass fuel? Anyone who’s been to Canmore can see this done when taking the first exit off the TransCanada highway – the exit ramp circles around the cutest little forest you’ve ever seen. If we think in those ways, of expanding the concept of where trees could help, nearly endless possibilities emerge. In Bolivia, farmers planted trees to benefit livestock; in otherwise wide-open plains, the trees provided shelter and some fodder for the animals, improved soil quality, and fertilized the land with their leaves. In Haiti, similar plantations provided protection to crops from hurricanes. Tree planting has been found to reduce flooding. These ideas could go hand-in-glove with biomass operations, with a bit of planning. So rather than ripping down native forests, why not create new ones with specific purposes in mind, including biomass? These plantings don’t have to take away productive farmland like the US ethanol-fuel program encourages, but on otherwise marginalized land, the benefits could be immense. And, of course, trees clean the air and provide oxygen.
If we start thinking in this way, that forests/trees are holistic and good and beneficial to pretty much anyone, then maybe we could get back to the days when we fought for a better environment, when “fighting for the environment” meant fighting for natural habitat, not fighting for social justice for [insert favourite sociological/socioeconomic/psychosomatic disaster]. To quote those great Californians The Offspring, “Now that’s something everyone can enjoy.”
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You seem to have no idea of the quantities of material required for a continuous power plant supply.
Perhaps. How much is required?
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Wikipedia (who are never wrong…) lists red oak as having an energy density of 14.9 MJ/kg. Taking the Williams Like biomass plant as an example (just because I am familiar with it), we are trying to fire a 60MW plant that runs base load. Let’s assume a 90% capacity factor:
60MW * 8,760 hrs/Yr * 90% = 473 GWh annually.
I’m taking a guess, but I would be surprised if you get better than 35% efficiency in a Rankine cycle plant on a low-quality fuel (good coal burners are thought to be ~42%), so let’s assume 40% fuel efficiency. That requires:
473 GWh / 40% = 1,183 GWh of wood energy into the plant.
A GWh is 3.6 million MJ, so fuel into the plant is:
1,183 GWh * 3.6E6 MJ/GWh = 4.26E9 MJ per year.
At ~15MJ/kg, that’s 286,000 Tonnes of wood annually; call it 800 Tonnes/day.
I agree that biomass has its place – but usually (as we see in all the BC biomass facilities) it’s as an adjunct to other wood uses, where we recover some value from the wastes and scrap wood.
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Picking up from dcardno below, the area of land required to grow that timber based on a mean annual increment of around 3 cubic metres per hectare per year and a density of 0.75 tonnes per cubic metre you need (286000×0.75)/3 or 53,625 ha or 132,510 acres to grow the required fuel at a minimum with a perfectly normalized age class distribution. Using a species that actually grows in BC or Alberta such as Pine would result in about 30% more land given its lessor energy density.
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Good discussion all thank you.
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Forty percent of the planet’s annual forest harvest already went for heating and cooking fuel before the green energy rent seeking bonanza took over. If Elizabeth May and her fellow hysteria merchants get their way, forests will be decimated without fossil fuels. As a biofuel, wood has about 1/3 to 1/5th the mj/t (megajoule per tonne) as coal depending on species and moisture content. It makes sense when utilizing residual fibre at mill and sort yards but less so the further it must be transported and the higher up the log grade continuum. Harvesting logs in North America at mutiple times the (opportunity) cost per mj as purchasing coal and then burning high sulfur, high density, bunker oil to move low density fuel halfway around the planet to burn in converted coal-fired plants sitting beside idled coal mines to add to the energy poverty in the UK is insanity.
Moore’s film is anti forestry, anti mining, anti fossil fuel, anti agriculture and is premised on the need to eliminate most of humanity. Hysteria merchants were naturally offended because without their mythical green energy bromides to sell to the paying masses their only remaining and brutally honest message is the same as Moore’s which turns off the customer base and ultimately the spigots of the rent seeking bonanza.
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Good idea but no matter what the original purpose, people have a short memory. An area planted 20 years ago and then ready for harvest will be confronted by tree huggers who demand that the trees not be harvested because Mother Earth or something. Happens all the time, homeowners buy their house with a rider that the empty area across the street will be reserved for expansion of the road, but 20 years on when the traffic warrants the expansion, the homeowners balk that they are losing their view and the value of their house will be reduced, even though the price of the house was discounted when they bought it because of the potential road expansion.
If we had any sense we we would create agricultural biochar out of most biomass. Improve soils at the same time you store some carbon.
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I hope this doesn’t duplicate but after having to log in not sure if first post made it.
As one that hauls assorted drainage and water pipe into the construction of the SWRR (South West Ring Road) those two lanes of blacktop you see on the surface are the easiest and least expensive stage of the project. The drainage systems and holding ponds required are sized for the one-in-a-hundred year deluge or flood. ALL run-off has to be collected, diverted and channeled together through larger and larger pipes and concrete sumps and holding ponds to be absorbed into the water table or in high flow released into a river. (Elbow/Bow) which itself sometimes now has to be reinforced with large crushed granite and improved high-flow channels. Storm water collectors are laid in the ground surrounded by a bed of gravel, and various erosion prohibiting fabrics. Points of sudden elevation changes ie: all the overpasses (49) are especially challenging.
Then there is all the lighting, another engineering marvel dedicated to ensuring maximum visibility of the road surface from the driver’s point of view, be it a motorcyclist or semi operator.
Planting trees in the separator expanse would just play havoc with all these systems requiring a complete re-engineering of the project. Sorry to burst your bubble but the “empty” space design is deliberate.
I also can’t see any use for biomass as an efficient replacement for energy-dense fossil fuels. I do appreciate all your articles and your time and effort invested in educating the public about what to me at least , are very common sense and obvious truths.
Very good to know thanks! I like to throw ideas out there, some are feasible, others not. If a good discussion ensues, like here, i learn a lot that i would not have otherwise.
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The oil industry is no more dead than farming was in 1980.
[…] Moore, no friend of business, at least to his credit turned his selective eye to the massive illusion that is the renewable energy agenda. While it is rewarding to see that end of the spectrum howling for the video to be banned, Moore didn’t get it all right – biomass has a place, if done right. It can be the focal point of efficient use of materials, something we would all be interested in if we could silence the climate scene madness. Read on… […]
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