Burning Our Forests to Power the Grid

– by Dr. Luis Contreras


Photo: PRI.org

In early February, the U.S. Senate passed an amendment to the “Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2015,” to allow coal-fired power plants to harvest U.S. National Forests and burn the trees to power the grid. The August 2015 “Modernization Act,” of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, ignores wind and solar energy and promotes increased fossil fuel production, pipelines, and mining permits. The new amendment promotes replacing coal with wood pellets and harvesting National Forests.

Who benefits from the new rules? Coal-fired power plants, wood pellet mills, Big Timber, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), and the pulp and paper industry are at the top of the list.

What is the social cost of the proposed rules? The extreme floods, wildfires, droughts, insect infestation, high temperatures, and other impacts of abrupt climate change in 2015 would increase. Deforestation, loss of drinking water, air pollution, poor public health from wood smoke, river contamination from continued use of coal-fired power plants and wood pellet mills, loss of biodiversity and wildlife, and many other negative impacts come to mind.

How is burning wood pellets to replace coal justified? The rules are based on flawed logic, ignorance, and deception.

1. Claiming burning wood pellets is carbon-neutral. According to the Act, new trees would grow back, capturing carbon dioxide, compensating the emissions from burning wood pellets. Can you find the holes in the story?

Burning pellets is worse than burning coal, as wood is a low-density fuel. Power plants can’t burn trees, only dry pellets. It takes a great amount of energy to harvest the forests, deliver trees to the mills, make wood chips, dry the wood to make pellets, and ship pellets to the coal plants. The fossil fuels, greenhouse gas emissions, and pollution to burn forests to power the grid are ignored. Cutting down forests is done in days, using monster skidders, ripping the soil and anything in their path; it takes decades, in good weather, for trees to grow.

2. USFS claims “thinning” National Forests improves the health and reduces the risk of wildfires. Thinning is the term used to describe timber sales. Big Timber gets a great deal harvesting trees at bottom prices. U.S. southeastern forests are different from west coast forests; global warming and severe drought are the root cause of west coast wildfires. Thinning would be an additional source of trees for pellet mills.

3. Denying mills use trees. Pellet mills claim feedstocks come from “huge inventories of unused forest dregs, logging leftovers, imperfect commercial trees, dead wood, sawdust and other non- commercial trees that need to be thinned from crowded, unhealthy, fire-prone forests.” Collecting forest dregs would take a long time; mills harvest forests.

Here is the math: trees store 40 percent water, wood has 50 percent cellulose, so it takes at least twice the amount of wood mass to make the same mass of pellets, and additional wood to generate steam and electric power. The Dogwood Alliance has aerial pictures of deforestation and logging trucks entering pellet mills. Stumps don’t lie.

What are the consequences for Arkansas? Arkansas is one of the main targets. The harm would be immediate and permanent. Forests are not just sticks in the ground. The invisible underground forest soil is a complex ecosystem working in concert with the forest trees. Carbon-rich soil stores large amounts of water and mitigates flooding. Tree roots keep the soil from eroding, and protect the rivers and creeks from sedimentation. No trees, no soil.

What is the impact on the Climate Emergency? While the rest of the world embraces solar and wind power, plants billions of trees, and protects standing forests, this Act would send a clear message that the US chooses fossil fuels and biomass energy over the survival of humankind.

One comment

  • David Ellenbogen

    Well stated. One thing worth adding is that the forest floor needs the “huge inventories of unused forest dregs, logging leftovers, imperfect commercial trees, dead wood, sawdust and other non- commercial trees …” if it is to remain healthy. Mother nature wants this old wood to rot and replenish the nutrients of the forest’s soil.


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