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Blog

Energy Sources: Context Is All; Nothing Is Perfect

July 14, 2011
Author: Suz-Anne Kinney

For the past 4 years, I have thoroughly enjoyed being a part of the forest products industry. As the Marketing Manager for Forest2Market, I’ve had the good fortune to meet many in the industry who collectively represent the entire forest products supply chain, from landowner to logger, to paper company executives, to owners of saw mills and lumber retail outlets. During introductions, I often jokingly referred to my BA in environmental science from the University of California at Berkeley (Cal) as being from a time when it was an interdisciplinary degree heavily science based, not today’s political science degree.  It got a few laughs, and of course, I thought it was hilarious.

Then last summer, I was part of a team that was “across the table” from the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in a hearing in front of the North Carolina Utilities Commission. (Full disclosure: Forest2Market provided expert witness testimony at this hearing.) The SELC and EDF were attempting to restrict the legal definition of wood biomass to exclude whole trees. Their argument hinged on the legal definition of the word ‘including’ – perhaps inspired by the infamous “it depends on what your definition of is is” defense? The transcript of the hearing can be found here.

That day, in front of the NC Utilities Commission, my science-not-political-science joke stopped being funny.

The degree in environmental science offered at Cal recognized the interdisciplinary approach necessary to address environmental issues. It was new and exciting and represented ‘out of the box’ thinking on a campus where every other degree program had its own building. The curriculum, which included predominately science, mathematics and public policy courses, was designed to teach the environmentalist-in-training how to find solutions to complex problems involving the natural system/human system interface. Two of the most important things I learned at Cal were: 1) don’t dismiss a good solution in search of a perfect solution and 2) effective solutions are contextual.

Now, back to that basement hearing room in Raleigh last summer, where you’d have found me appalled that environmentalists were obstructing the use of a plentiful and renewable resource for the generation of electricity, where lawyers from the SELC and the EDF were arguing against inclusion of whole trees in the list of allowable energy resources.

The law in question during this hearing was North Carolina’s Senate Bill 3, also known as North Carolina’s Renewable [energy] Portfolio Standard, which was signed into law on August 20, 2007.

Section 1 of NC SB 3 includes the following policy statement.

“To promote the development of renewable energy and energy efficiency through the implementation of a Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard (REPS) that will do all of the following{emphasis added}:

a)  Diversify the resources used to reliably meet the energy needs of consumers in the State.

b)  Provide greater energy security through the use of indigenous energy resources available within the State.

c)  Encourage private investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

d)   Provide improved air quality and other benefits to energy consumers and citizens of the State.”

Section 2.8 of NC SB 3 includes the following definition of renewable sources:

“ 'Renewable energy resource' means a solar electric, solar thermal, wind, hydropower, geothermal, or ocean current or wave energy resource; a biomass resource, including agricultural waste, animal waste, wood waste, spent pulping liquors, combustible residues, combustible liquids, combustible gases, energy crops, or landfill methane; waste heat derived from a renewable energy resource and used to produce electricity or useful, measurable thermal energy at a SL2007-0397 Session Law 2007-397 Page 3 retail electric customer's facility; or hydrogen derived from a renewable energy resource. 'Renewable energy resource' does not include peat, a fossil fuel, or nuclear energy resource.”

The SELC and EDF lawyers were arguing that the list of named biomass sources following the word including did not specifically say whole trees, hence the use of whole trees as a fuel source should not be allowed as a feedstock to meet the REPS requirements. The SELC and the EDF seemed oblivious to the obvious contradiction to their argument presented later in the same paragraph: that whole trees are not listed in the Does Not Include list.

Sitting through that very long day of testimony, I tried to calculate the real and lost opportunity cost to the utility and electric coop representatives, the Commissioners, and the cost of the expert witnesses.  I wondered if the folks who made their (tax deductible) contributions to SELC and EDF would, if they knew the circumstances of the hearing, be appalled to hear environmentalists arguing against the use of wood (in the form of a tree) for energy in the state of North Carolina.

In fact, EDF applauded passage of SB 3 in 2007. EDF spokes person Michael Shore is quoted in an EDF press release as saying:

"The key to a clean and cost-effective energy future is for North Carolina to develop its abundant renewable and efficiency resources . . . . It is critical that the General Assembly pass a renewable and efficiency standard this year to clean the air, reduce global warming pollution, and put off the need to build expensive coal and nuclear power plants."

Just 3 years later in that hearing room, had the EDF been successful, they would have undermined the entire purpose of the legislation that they earlier supported, effectively removing from the available sources the only large-scale source of renewable energy available in the state.

Effective solutions must be made in context. This is something that groups like the EDF and the SELC refuse to acknowledge, despite the fact that we all instinctively know it is true. Few would back a “solar only” REPS for the state of Alaska, for instance. Every region in the country, even every state, has a different mix of renewable energy sources that are available, practical and bankable.

Let's just look at what is available in the state of North Carolina.

The renewable resources available to meet the NCREPS can be categorized as one of two classes of energy sources primary sources and sources from waste streams.  Primary sources include :  solar electric, solar thermal, wind, hydropower, geothermal, or ocean current or wave energy resources, energy crops and whole trees (under the now current definition).  All of the other sources listed above are by-products of other activities (collection of refuse, animal husbandry, agriculture, manufacture of wood or paper, etc).

Wind: If the context is North Carolina, the areas suitable for wind generation are primarily located on the outer bank islands and in the surrounding water, as this map from the Energy Information Agency shows.   Any attempt to site a renewable energy project in these economic and environmentally sensitive areas will need to run a gauntlet of legal and political objections.  Ocean current or wave technology will as well.. The other areas of the state suitable for wind development are in, or very near state and federally owned land in the Smokey Mountains. Anyone attempting to build wind farms in these areas will face similar challenges..

Solar: Potential solar resources in North Carolina are better than wind resources but NC still only gets a passing grade as this map from EIA shows.  Solar can be installed almost anywhere in the state, however, the reduced efficiency of solar in NC means the return for the private investors the state wishes to attract cannot compete with the return possible in other (western) states where solar is abundant and electricity is expensive.

Hydro: Hydropower potential in North Carolina?  Google “American rivers”+”environmental defense fund”  or “American rivers”+”Southern environmental law center” to read about the work these three agencies are doing to restore wildlife and natural river systems by removing dams – many of them are hydropower dams.  Whether one believes this is a good thing to do or not, the fact is environmental groups across the US including the EDF and the SELC are opposed to dams.

Geothermal: Take a look at this map of geothermal capacity by state to see why it is crossed off the list without discussion in this blog. Crossing the resources available for the generation of electricity off of the primary sources list above we have:  solar electric, solar thermal, wind, hydropower, geothermal, or ocean current or wave energy resources, energy crops and whole trees (under the now current definition).

So what’s left: Energy crops and whole trees.   Seriously?   Trees are the original energy crop.  Am I advocating the exclusive use of whole trees for the production of energy?  No, but it is not in North Carolina’s best interest, nor in the best interest of the United States, to exclude trees either.

The use of trees for energy is not without some risk, no doubt. But unlike coal, the tops of mountains do not have to be removed to harvest trees.  The carbon dioxide released from the conversion of trees to electricity was extracted from the atmosphere in my lifetime, not millions of years ago.  Trees that grow to replace those harvested will sequester an equal amount of greenhouse gas in their lifetimes. For the record, coal mines don’t sequester carbon, period.   And the trees will grow to replace those harvested.  While humans can stop the natural reseeding process, we don’t need to do a thing to make it happen.  Trees are the original renewable energy source.

So my humble advice to the EDF and the SELC: hire fewer lawyers and more environmental scientists who are trained to find balanced solutions that are science and public policy based.  Then, if the SELC and the EDF were truly interested in finding solutions to our energy problem, they would have the staff necessary to place all possible and practical sources of energy side by side, measure the costs and benefits in comparison to each other, and propose a workable set of the most environmentally responsible sources of energy on a state by state basis.

For now, though, these groups seem unconcerned that their positions support the continued use of fossil fuels with all of their human and environmental costs. For now, they seem intent on pursuing the elusive perfect solution at the expense of today's good solution.


Comments

Energy Sources: Context Is All; Nothing Is Perfect

07-14-2011

[...] here: Energy Sources: Context Is All; Nothing Is Perfect | F2M Market Watch       Share and [...]


Comments

North Carolina Court of Appeals Rules that Trees A

08-12-2011

[...] a 10% by 2018. Because both wind and solar are limited in the state (see Suzanne Hearn’s post, Energy Sources: Context Is All), much of this power will need to be produced from [...]


Comments

Energy Sources: Context Is All; Nothing Is Perfect

08-15-2011

[...] Context Is All; Nothing Is Perfect   August 15, 2011 - 0 Comments   By Suzanne Hearn – Forest2Market Photo – [...]


Comments

The Case for Forest Biomass | F2M Market Watch

09-23-2011

[...] I understand that developing a long-term sustainable path to a clean and renewable energy future is a difficult undertaking.  Every state, after all, has a unique mix of energy sources. Some have abundant sun, some have abundant wind, and some have abundant forest biomass. Biomass power plants may abound in the South, where forest resources are plentiful, but North Dakota will need to find other options. Solar energy may be all the rage in sunny California, but don’t expect to see solar farms on the outskirts of Seattle. (See Suzanne Hearn’s post on regional energy sources.) [...]


Comments

The Case for Forest Biomass | Forest Business Netw

10-11-2011

[...] I understand that developing a long-term sustainable path to a clean and renewable energy future is a difficult undertaking. Every state, after all, has a unique mix of energy sources. Some have abundant sun, some have abundant wind, and some have abundant forest biomass. Biomass power plants may abound in the South, where forest resources are plentiful, but North Dakota will need to find other options. Solar energy may be all the rage in sunny California, but don’t expect to see solar farms on the outskirts of Seattle. (See Suzanne Hearn’s post on regional energy sources.) [...]


Comments

Wood vs. Coal: Moisture Content and Carbon Emissio

02-14-2012

[...] Energy Sources: Context Is All, Nothing is Perfect [...]

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