Wood energy challenges

Renewable energy discussions often exclude wood as a feedstock. Yet, in many ways, wood has many advantages.

There is probably little doubt that the nature of our future energy economy will look quite different than it does today. How that future energy economy might appear in a few decades is speculative. Assuredly, it won’t be built in a short time but, rather, evolve through time. And whether that construction is done using an intelligent strategy remains to be seen. Many strategists and builders appear to focus on a few themes: stop using so much fossil fuel, especially petroleum, increase conservation and efficiency, use local resources and keep the economy and jobs local. Multiple energy supply sources make sense. Sometimes small is better than gigantic.

In Michigan, especially northern Michigan, using more wood energy makes sense in so many ways. However, like any proposition, there are challenges. Interestingly, these challenges can be categorized using the same labels as the three pillars of sustainability: economy, socio-cultural and environmental.

While each of the three categories has challenges, it’s the socio-cultural area that appears the toughest and most complicated. Among the socio-cultural challenges, the toughest three may be:

  1. Too many people think cutting trees is bad
  2. Misperceptions of the economic and environmental impacts
  3. Humans are innately resistant to change.

A fourth could potentially be added – the policy and regulatory environment – but on the other hand, that’s mostly a result of the first three, with its own peculiar twist.

Cutting trees too often evokes misplaced concern about environmental degradation. Usually, perhaps, this concern is caused by a change in visual quality (especially a clearcut), even though visual quality is a particularly lousy yardstick of ecological integrity. Even by engaging all the science that goes into modern forest management, the notion persists that cutting trees is inherently bad. Errant perspectives such as this are not based on knowledge of science. They come from elsewhere.

Wood energy proposals are commonly met with a range of misperceptions about the particular technology and environmental effects. For example, many argue that wood energy facilities create air pollution; however, modern facilities do not produce significant levels of pollution when using long-standing current technology. These facilities are not like the backyard outdoor burners that smoke up the neighborhood. Yet the fear of air pollution is voiced at nearly every public forum.

Also cited at these public meetings is the idea that forests will be devastated. There are no facts to support this perception and volumes to support the opposite. In defense of the fear-mongers, there are certain situations, mostly local, where special precautions need to be taken beyond the usual precautions associated with timber harvesting. In fact, the concern lies more along the lines of not having enough forest owners sell their timber, rather than Godzilla ravaging the landscape.

Lastly, most people just don’t like to see change, at least according to social scientists, especially those studies that assess natural resource perceptions. Unfortunately, forests are a dynamic resource that will change whether people like it or not. The idea behind forest management is to purposefully direct that change using ecological principles to benefit forest owners and society at large. Benign neglect, or doing nothing, will too often result in negative outcomes, and corrective actions are much more difficult than regular management.

Using more wood to create more heat, power and transportation fuel is a social change that will be difficult for many to accept. This was true in several northern European countries that went through this process in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, countries such as Sweden and Denmark are leaders in renewable energy, especially wood energy. Michigan would not be among the first to go down this wood energy road. It’s been successfully done before.

Michigan is rich in wood resources. Nobody is suggesting our forests be liquidated for short-term gain. Those days are long past, although bad examples still occur, mostly on private ownerships. A portion of Michigan’s energy future could include wood, along with a suite of other technologies, as well as better conservation and efficiencies. For more information on Forestry in Michigan, visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

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