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.”