Monday, June 29, 2015

Mud: The world’s next power source?

Sounds odd, but if the process could produce energy to any level, without pollutants or toxins let's look into it.

Mud: The world’s next power source?

For most of us, mud is nothing more than the sludge that ruins our carpets, clothes and shoes. For one California company, however, it could be a revolutionary source of sustainable energy.

MudWatt has built a device designed to harness the energy released by mud-based microbes. "The MudWatt is based on microbial fuel cell technology," Keegan Cooke, MudWatt's Executive Director, told CNBC over email.

"It converts chemical energy found in the sugars and nutrients into electrical energy, and it uses special electric bacteria to drive that reaction," he added. "We don't supply any bacteria in the kit – the bacteria are already in the dirt around you."


According to the MudWatt website, the device uses graphite electrodes, with the anode located in the microbe rich mud, and the cathode placed on top, exposed to oxygen. The microbes consume nutrients within the mud, and then, "deposit electrons onto the anode."

Read MoreBean there: Could soy and canola save the planet?
The electrons then travel through wire and become power. The electrons are able to move back down the wire to the cathode, interacting with oxygen and protons, creating water.

Currently used in locations including schools, homes and colleges, Cooke said that the MudWatt can power everything from sensor packages to small electronics like digital clocks, thermometers and buzzers.

The company is committed to broadening access to sustainable technology and informing the public on how it works, and according to Cooke, around 7,000 MudWatt kits have been sold. A MudWatt Classic Kit, which contains everything needed to get started, costs just under $40.

Cooke said the most power that has ever been produced by a MudWatt is around 500 microwatts, "Which an 8th grader achieved using their local river mud. You'd still need 20,000 MudWatts to light a house LED light bulb, but 500 microWatts can still be used for lot of things, like powering small electronics."

As Cooke said, "you won't be seeing any MudWatt-powered cars anytime soon," but there is potential for this kind of technology to be used on a larger scale, such as in wastewater treatment plants.

"Instead of wastewater treatment plants consuming a bunch of energy… they could become energy producers, putting power back into the grid and becoming part of a broader portfolio of renewable energy technologies," Cooke said.

Read MoreHas the Holy Grail of clean energy been found?
The sustainability of the device and technology is another advantage – no pollutants or toxins are produced during the process, according to Cooke, who also said that new packaging for the device will be made from a paper pulp that can be used by the MudWatt as fuel.

"Nothing gets used up or corroded, and so the system lasts forever, as long as you give it new nutrients, which are a renewable resource," he said.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Parched Southwest looks

We are traveling right not, but not into the Southwest.  last year we spent a lot of time in CA and witnessed, first hand, the drought conditions.

Listen to our most recent interview on our main site--Renewable learn more about Israel's leadership in desalinating water for drinking supplies.  They are consulting in many countries, including the US, on their technology and amazing expertise.

Parched Southwest looks closely at turning salt water into fresh water

Desalination: A solution to California's drought?

It's not just California. Droughts are sapping precious water supplies all across America's southwest.

The region has been suffering from drought for 11 of the past 14 years, according to NASA, directly affecting more than 64 million people.
In Arizona and Nevada, the water level in Lake Mead -- which feeds water to 40 million people across the region -- has plummeted to lows not seen since the 1930s, according to the Los Angeles Times.
And then there's Texas -- which has been battling its current drought for nearly five years.
Long-term weather forecasters predict it could get a lot worse. A NASA study warns that greenhouse gases from fossil fuel emissions might create "megadroughts" in the western U.S. during the coming decades. These events could trigger "events that nobody in the history of the United States has ever had to deal with," NASA climate scientist Ben Cook says.
Without snow and rainfall, what's the alternative? Communities in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada are considering more reliance on two sources: "brackish" or salty water found underground and seawater.
The process is called desalination.
In Texas -- which like California, boasts hundreds of miles of ocean shoreline -- water levels in some reservoirs are extremely low. Farmers in parts of the state have suspended crop irrigation. Communities have restricted water use. Cities need water to generate energy, and thirst for electricity is skyrocketing.
"There's 1,000 people a day moving into Texas and there just won't be enough water unless we do something about creating new resources," says Mark Lambert, CEO of a water treatment firm called IDE Americas.
In San Diego, Lambert's company has built the biggest seawater desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere, a $1-billion facility expected to go online as soon as November, producing up to 50 million gallons of freshwater a day by a process called reverse osmosis. Lambert expects the desalination plant to result in a $5 to $7 spike in average monthly water bills.
In Florida, a desalination plant in Tampa Bay transforms seawater into as much as 25 million gallons of freshwater daily. That's 10% of the company's 2.3 million customers. About a hundred miles south, Cape Coral, Florida, boast the oldest municipal reverse osmosis desal plant in the nation, dating back to 1977.
When it comes to changing seawater to freshwater, Texas is watching.
Texas predicts its population will skyrocket 82% between 2010 and 2060, but its water needs will increase just 22%. The projection factors in declining demand for irrigation and increasing municipal conservation.
"We've certainly spent a lot of time looking at what Tampa Bay has done in Florida with their seawater desal project," says Robert Mace, Texas deputy executive administrator for water, science, and conservation. "And then we're certainly looking very closely at that project that San Diego has for water supply."
For years, Texas communities have used desalination plants to purify brackish water from underground. San Antonio -- the state's second most populated city -- is building a plant for brackish water set to go online in 2016. But Texas has no major plants that desalinate seawater.
Instead of desalination, state water officials are emphasizing conservation, including facilities that transform waste water directly into drinking water.
"There's a great deal of potential in reusing water in Texas," Mace says. The state's "direct potable reuse" facilities have been attracting interest from other states, including California, Mace says.
But experts acknowledge desalination, especially from seawater, will eventually play a large role.
Building more desalination plants "probably should have happened a decade ago," Lambert says.
"I'm not saying desalination is a silver bullet. It's a part of the solution."
Environmental groups have been cautiously supportive. When Texas lawmakers hammered out new legislation in March for seawater desalination plants, the Sierra Club's Ken Kramer told a Texas House committee that each proposed seawater desalination plant should be thoroughly reviewed "to make sure that it is the most viable approach to meeting a true water supply need and ... to avoid or minimize the potential effects on marine life and the environment."
A few basic methods for desalination include:

Reverse osmosis
This process uses high water pressure. Undrinkable salty or brackish water is pushed at high pressure through a membrane filter. Pure water molecules then exit the other side.

This one is all about the heat. When you raise the temperature of the water, it evaporates, leaving the salt behind. The evaporated water condenses in a separate chamber and becomes pure water.

Electricity is the key to this process. Salt in water is made up of atoms called ions that have electrical charges. By sending electricity through salt water and a stack of filters, the process can separate the salt, leaving pure water.
The immediate prospects for Texas seawater desalination are minimal. Next year, a seawater desalination plant is expected to go online in Corpus Christi, Texas. Italian chemical company M&G Resins is building its own private desalination facility for manufacturing. It's expected to pump out 6 million gallons of freshwater a day.
There's also been discussions in communities such as Brownsville and the Galveston-Houston area about building seawater desalination plants.
"Desalting seawater is very expensive compared to other water supplies," Mace says.
"As other water supplies get allocated or used, seawater desal will probably become more desirable."
Lambert agrees. There "will be a time in the relative near future when desalinated water becomes the cheapest source of water" as the price of water from other sources rises, he says.
Overall, expect the search for new water sources in the southwestern U.S. to be permanent, says Lambert. "This isn't a blip on a radar screen."

Mount Everest Could Look

Two articles today (posted Sunday for Monday) that continue to look at possible phsical changes to our most beloved natural landmarks if atmospheric changes continue to warm our planet.

We ran a similar story recently and will continue to look at pending changes.

Mount Everest Could Look Very Different By The End Of The Century


Most of Mount Everest’s glaciers will markedly shrink over the course of this century, as climate change continues to warm the Himalayan region, according to a new study.

The study, published Wednesday in the journal Cryosphere, found that the thousands of glaciers in the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region — where Everest is located — could shrink by 70 to 99 percent by the end of this century. The researchers used a model that took into account eight future temperature and precipitation scenarios as well as historical data on temperature, precipitation, and glacial melt.

Since the scenarios varied in terms of warming, the researchers found that total scale of loss will depend on how much emissions rise and how much those emissions affect the climate in the Himalayan region.

“The signal of future glacier change in the region is clear: continued and possibly accelerated mass loss from glaciers is likely given the projected increase in temperatures,” Joseph Shea, lead author of the study and a glacier hydrologist at the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, said in a statement.

That glacier melt could have major impacts for the people who live in the region and depend heavily on meltwater from the glaciers. More than one billion people in the region depend on water from the glaciers, the Guardian reports, and as the glaciers continue to retreat, the meltwater will become less reliable.

“Changes in glacier area and volume are expected to have large impacts on the availability of water during the dry seasons, which will impact agriculture, hydropower generation, and local water resources availability,” the study reads.

In addition to disrupting water sources, the retreat of glaciers could also create lakes dammed by glacial debris — which, if that dam breaks, could pose a huge risk to communities living downstream to the lakes. Mount Everest also has a unique problem when it comes to climate change: the human poop that’s built up from years of mountaineers trekking up the mountain could spread as Everest’s glaciers melt.

The researchers stress that this study should be seen as one of the first to quantify how glaciers in the Himalayan region will react to climate change, and that since “considerable uncertainties” remain, more research on the subject is needed. Still, that doesn’t mean the study’s findings shouldn’t be taken seriously.

“Glaciers in the region appear to be highly sensitive to changes in temperature, and projected increases in precipitation are insufficient to offset the increased glacier melt,” the researchers write.

“While we have identified numerous sources of uncertainty in the model, the signal of future glacier change in the region is clear and compelling.”

Scientists have warned about climate change’s risks to Mount Everest and the rest of the Himalayan region before. In 2014, a Chinese scientist said that Everest’s glaciers had melted 10 percent in the last 40 years, and that climate change was likely to blame. A 2013 study done by the same scientist — Kang Shichang, glaciologist at Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research — found that the tops of Tibetan glaciers were shrinking, or “virtually being decapitated,” in Schichang’s words.

Other studies have also warned of climate change’s impact on glaciers around the world. Last year, a Parks Canada official said that Alberta’s Athabasca glacier — the most-visited glacier in North America — is melting at an “astonishing” rate, and could disappear within a generation. And this year, a study found that Western Canada could use 70 percent of its glaciers by the end of the century.

“What [glaciers] are telling us is that the climate is changing. The glaciers don’t respond to weather, so they don’t get confused about whether it was a cold winter or a hot summer,” Gary Clarke, professor emeritus at University of British Columbia, told ThinkProgress in April. “When the glaciers are wasting away, we know that the climate isn’t helpful to them.”

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Young Woman Shares Story of Starting Sustainable Business

We love all the new enterprise arising from our move towards building a resilient future.  Here's a quick feature on a young girl in Des Moines.  

One of the things there new organization does well, and is key in one generation helping the next, is mentoring start ups.  Mentors are under appreciated.  (You will find the story and video here).

DES MOINES, Iowa – A young business woman touring the country will share her story about building a sustainable company in Des Moines.
Chelsie Antos started the company Trades of Hope four years ago, when she was a 17-year-old.
“I started it with my mom and another mother/daughter team, so we’re two mother/daughter teams who are just passionate about changing the world,” Antos said.
Trades of Hope enlists the help of American women to lift females around the globe out of poverty. The company currently has about 1,600 Compassionate Entrepreneurs, including Connie Weaver.
“We are part of an army of women who are going out and we’re business partners with other woman around the world, artisan groups around the world, and we market their products in the United States,” Weaver said.
The company works with more than 6,500 artisans in 15 countries around the world.
“This is employing women who have come out of the sex industry in southern California, and so these women are able to leave a lifestyle that just leaves them broken, and this is giving them a fair wage and alternative source of income,” Antos said, as she showed a necklace.
Antos says it’s important for any business woman to have a mentor and find a purpose.
“Look inside yourself to see what fulfills you and then what would fulfill other people as well. I think that’s the most important thing is I found when I’m helping other people it fulfills the purpose for my life,” Antos said.
You can hear more from Antos Monday night. She’ll speak at Java Joes’ on 4th street in Des Moines at 7 p.m. Her next stop is Minnesota.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Wind energy vs. fossil fuels: Hurdles and hopes for a renewable future

We should not require an ail spill to migrate quickly from fossil-fuel to clean energy.  Of course we've had enough spills.  Arguments around taxpayer subsidies is waning.  We see renewables getting very competitive, and we've seen lots of tax credits offered to oil/gas companies for exploration.

Wind is incredibly proficient.  We can't meet our clean energy goals without wind.  RI, as an example, is seeing a wonderful proliferation of land-based wind while development is finally happening off-shore as well.  Same for MASS.

Local energy production keeps jobs at home.  Let's invest in turbines, solar panels, hydro and all other forms of energy independence.  

The fossil fuel industry receives billions in taxpayer subsidies as the wind industry fights to take flight

First U.S. Offshore Wind Farm to Break Ground This July
     First U.S. Offshore Wind Farm to Break Ground This July
The colossal oil spill in Southern California last month spurred many to wonder why we have not abandoned fossil fuels for wind and other sources of renewable energy.
A busted pipeline spewed an estimated 101,000 gallons of crude oil onto a pristine stretch of the Santa Barbara coastline on May 19, creating a nine-mile-wide oil slick in the Pacific.

“We don’t have an estimate for [the duration of] this cleanup response, as we are still assessing the extent of the contamination,” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency spokesman Rusty Harris-Bishop told Yahoo News this week.

Last year, roughly 67 percent of the nation’s electricity came from fossil fuels — such as coal, natural gas and petroleum — which release pollutants into the air.

Meanwhile, wind power, essentially a pollution-free, sustainable energy resource that the United States can harness domestically, supplied only 4.4 percent of the country’s electricity.

But Franklin (Lynn) Orr, the under secretary for science and energy at the Department of Energy (DOE), said the transition to clean energy is already underway — and expected to continue.

“Four and a half percent of America’s total electricity. That is triple the share what it had six years ago. And it’s on track to double again in the next five years,” Orr said in an interview with Yahoo News.

Given the proper financial investment and political backing, wind could account for a much larger percentage of the nation’s electricity production than it currently does.

But, critics say, many corporations and politicians stand to profit from our continued reliance upon fossil fuels.

“There are still a lot of politicians that are really in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry and some that are ideologically committed to it,” Nathanael Greene, renewable energy policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), said to Yahoo News.

Widespread support for wind energy
The United States is a world leader in wind power, having invested an average of $13 billion per year in wind plants from 2008 to 2013.

Kit Kennedy, director of the NRDC’s energy and transportation program, says the United States underwent a “quiet revolution” in renewable electricity in recent years.

Polls have consistently shown that Americans strongly support wind energy.

Conservative Texas has the most installed wind power capacity of any state, and the runner-up is liberal California.

“It’s not a red state-blue state distinction. Wind is a powerhouse in states across the country. That means we are seeing bipartisan support for wind power, and that’s growing,” Kennedy said in an interview with Yahoo News.
Iowa and South Dakota power more than 25 percent of the electricity in their respective states using wind, she said.

And the United States is not alone. Global investment in wind power soared from $14 billion in 2004 to $80 billion in 2013, a 21 percent annual rate of growth. In 2014, Denmark set a world record by generating about 40 percent of its electricity from wind.

The DOE estimates that wind energy could supply the nation with 10 percent of its electricity by 2020, 20 percent by 2030 and 35 percent by 2050.

This would require cooperation and strategic planning: expanded development areas, increased economic value and reduced costs.

Federal policy: A stable environment for investors
The cost of wind power has dropped dramatically over the past decade.

Still, the initial investment needed to install wind turbines is greater than it is for traditional energy generators. Furthermore, the development of wind farms is not always the most financially lucrative use of land.

The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), the national trade association for the wind industry, argues that investors need a “predictable, stable pro-growth tax policy” — the kind currently enjoyed by the fossil fuel industry.

The U.S. government provides the Production Tax Credit (PTC) for investors who financially support one of 12 renewable electricity sources.

But potential investors are scared away because Congress does not always extend the PTC, AWEA says.

In 2012, uncertainty over whether the incentives would be renewed resulted in a 92 percent drop in wind installations the following year, according to AWEA; as a result, the wind industry’s economy reportedly lost $23 billion and 30,000 jobs.

“Despite the fact that we have been growing rapidly, there has been a boom-and-bust cycle due to unstable federal policy,” David Ward, director of strategic communications for AWEA, said in an interview with Yahoo News.

Investment in new wind industry projects rebounded after Congress extended the PTC with the American Taxpayer Relief Act, which became law in early 2013, but the damage for that year was already done.

The 2013 drop-off was the most drastic since the PTC was introduced in 1992, but it was not unusual. There had been similar drop-offs in 2000, 2002 and 2004.

“Other industries have permanent incentives in place that do not come and go,” Ward said. “This happens despite poll after poll showing that the overwhelming number of voters support policies supporting wind’s growth.”

State policy: Commitment to clean energy
Twenty-nine states have adopted policies to incentivize renewable energy called Renewable Portfolio Standards. These require state utilities to purchase a certain amount of renewable energy.

For instance, Hawaii recently adopted a policy pledging to use 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. Right now, Hawaii’s electricity is extremely expensive because it is primarily powered by diesel fuel, which is imported to the islands.

“Whenever you are importing oil, there is a possibility of spills,” Kennedy said. “Simply as a matter of economics, Hawaii has gotten religious on renewable energy.”

John Moore, executive director of the Hawaiian Sustainability Foundation, says that the state’s salt saturation can break wind turbines — especially if they are close to the water — but that is no reason to abandon clean energy.

“The majority of people that live in Hawaii see no reason why we can’t have all solar and some wind,” Moore told Yahoo News. “The solar is the real no-brainer because the sun’s always shining here.”

The costs of solar panels for consumers have dropped rapidly, as well.

By 2014, a typical rooftop solar panel cost about 1 percent of what it cost 35 years earlier, Orr explained; as a result, solar PV module installations last year were 25 times what they were in 2008.

“All these efforts are not a coincidence," he said. "They are the result of public and private investments in research and development."

California, another state with ambitious goals, is working toward using 50 percent renewable electricity by 2030.

“What you’re seeing is a large number of states — red and blue — adopting these renewable energy policies and a couple of states redoubling their efforts from one set of targets to a new set of targets. That’s incredibly exciting, too,” he said.

Subsidies for the fossil fuel industry
Scientists know that fossil fuels harm the environment, exacerbate climate change and cause respiratory ailments in humans.

So why does the U.S. government shell out billions of dollars to prop up fossil fuels while providing relatively sparse support for wind?

Oil Change International, an organization advocating against subsidies for fossil fuels, says the industry’s fingerprints can be seen on every barrier to a transition toward clean energy.

“We see the influence of the fossil fuel industry as hugely problematic and something that needs to change. We need to separate the influence of the oil, gas and coal industries from our politics,” David Turnbull, campaign director for the nonprofit, said in an interview with Yahoo News. “They spend millions upon millions of dollars to influence our democracy.”

Estimates for how much the U.S. government gives to the fossil fuel industry — not even including indirect costs — can vary from $10 million to more than $50 billion per year, according to Turnbull.

According to a Guardian investigation, the U.S. government awarded Shell, ExxonMobil and Marathon Petroleum significant taxpayer subsidies — worth $1.6 billion, $119 million and $78 million, respectively — thanks to politicians they helped elect by donating to their campaigns.

Greene says it is understandable that the subsidies were implemented long ago to bolster the American economy, but it is time to cut back — especially now that we have viable alternatives.

“The irony is that we are now subsidizing renewables as a way to overcome the subsidies we are paying to the fossil fuels industries,” Greene said. “It’s like subsidizing both sides of a war.”
In the coming decade, taxpayers are projected to give more than $135 billion to these corporations.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who recently launched his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, and Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison have introduced legislation that would end subsidies to the oil, gas and coal industries.

“At a time when scientists tell us we need to reduce carbon pollution to prevent catastrophic climate change, it is absurd to provide massive taxpayer subsidies that pad fossil-fuel companies’ already enormous profits,” Sanders said in a release. “At a time when fossil-fuel companies are racking up record profits, it is absurd to provide massive taxpayer subsidies to pad their already enormous earnings.”

ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, BP and ConocoPhilips — the five most profitable oil companies — raked in more than $1 trillion in profits over the past 10 years, according to the release.

In a report, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) says that post-tax global subsidies are significantly higher than previously thought and are expected to reach $5.4 trillion by the end of the year.

“The sustained interest in energy subsidy reform also reflects increasing recognition of the perverse environmental, fiscal, macroeconomic, and social consequences of energy subsidies,” the report reads.

In April, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim called for eliminating all subsidies for fossil fuels and implementing a carbon tax.

Similarly, Fatih Birol, the chief economist at the International Energy Agency, has said that fossil fuel subsidies are basically an incentive to pollute.

Fossil fuel industry's perspective
The American Petroleum Institute, the nation’s largest trade organization for the oil and natural gas industry, argues that fossil fuels are central to the country’s economic growth, energy security and overall security as the foundation for its “all-of-the-above energy approach.”

“We need to make sure that the small but vocal view of those who peddle the false choice between energy production and safe environmental stewardship do not prevail in their narrow view which is contradicted by the facts,” API president and CEO Jack Gerard said during his "State of American Energy" speech in January.

The API and similar organizations argue that not only should we persist in using fossil fuels to maintain our current lifestyles, but also we will have to use more of it in upcoming decades.

Cape Wind
Wind power has occasionally been met with resistance — perhaps most famously in Massachusetts.
In 2010, the federal government approved the construction of a wind farm, called Cape Wind, off the coast of Cape Cod.

The proposed 130 wind turbines on Horseshoe Shoal in Nantucket Sound would generate 75 percent of the electricity for Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, according to project organizers.

But there has been fierce opposition from some groups, most notably the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, who say the wind turbines would ruin the ocean views of wealthy homeowners and decrease property values.

Although the Alliance presents itself as an “environmentalist” group, billionaire industrialist William I. Koch, who made a fortune in fossil fuels, is its chairman and a main financier.

The anti-wind campaign has succeeded in slowing construction of the wind farm. Ironically, the Cape and nearby islands would be among the top beneficiaries of wind power, since they are particularly vulnerable to the hazards of climate change.

The future
In March 2015, President Obama committed the U.S. to fighting climate change by setting a challenging, even unprecedented, goal: to reduce the nation's greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

Orr, who was sworn in as the DOE’s under secretary for science and energy three months earlier, said, “We need all of the tools that are in our toolkit now to do this, plus some more that we need to invent.”

Whereas Congress and state governments set the rules for Renewable Portfolio Standards and direct subsidies, the DOE focuses on advancing clean technologies and ensuring that fossil fuels are as clean as they can be.

“What we really need for the country is a well-diversified portfolio of energy,” Orr said. “Fossil energy has a big part in the system now. As we think about transitions, we have to do that in an orderly way that makes the whole system continue to operate.”

How Europe’s climate policies

This is an interesting quandary.  We see the same explosion of sales of wood pellets in the US.  The stoves burn clean (new ones).  It reduces, at least here in the Northeast and Midwest, burning of  dirty coal and oil.

If the forest are managed well, the argument goes, using virgin wood is a better alternative to the complicated, full-of-risk extraction, distribution and burning of fossil fuel  That might be a big "if" as we consider the below article and experience in Europe in providing  a lot of the biomass chips.

We're not sure, though, if climate policies are the big driver on this.  People love burning wood.  The stoves are enticing, the heat cozy.  There's a physical satisfaction for many in feeding and caring for a wood stove.  We are not sure how much thought is given to overall emissions by users.

Preserving open space/forest is an important part of holding on to some of our critical natural resources.  A return to over dependence on wood as a source of fuel to heat homes is dangerous, but biomass plants should be part of our mix of energy.  Like any of the environmental issues, finding balance is key.  The more efficient we get, the less we burn of any fuel.

How Europe’s climate policies have led to more trees being cut down in the U.S.

by Joby Warrick

© Daniel Acker/Bloomberg Maple logs are unloaded outside the Nicolet Hardwoods Corp. lumber mill in Laona, Wisconsin, U.S., on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012. Nicolet Hardwoods Corp. supplies customers worldwide with fresh cut and kiln dried…

OAK CITY, N.C. — For the sake of a greener Europe, thousands of American trees are falling each month in the forests outside this cotton-country town.

Every morning, logging crews go to work in densely wooded bottomlands along the Roanoke River, clearing out every tree and shrub down to the bare dirt. Each day, dozens of trucks haul freshly cut oaks and poplars to a nearby factory where the wood is converted into small pellets, to be used as fuel in European power plants.

Soaring demand for this woody fuel has led to the construction of more than two dozen pellet factories in the Southeast in the past decade, along with special port facilities in Virginia and Georgia where mountains of pellets are loaded onto Europe-bound freighters. European officials promote the trade as part of the fight against climate change. Burning “biomass” from trees instead of coal, they say, means fewer greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

But that claim is increasingly coming under challenge. A number of independent experts and scientific studies — including a new analysis to be released this week — are casting doubt on a key argument used to justify the cutting of Southern forests to make fuel. In reality, these scientists say, Europe’s appetite for wood pellets could lead to more carbon pollution for decades to come, while also putting some of the East Coast’s most productive wildlife habitats at risk.

“From the point of view of what’s coming out of the smokestack, wood is worse than coal,” said William H. Schlesinger, the former dean of Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences and one of nearly 100 scientists to sign a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency last year asking for stricter guidelines on using biomass to generate electric power. “You release a lot of carbon in a short period of time, and it takes decades to pull that carbon back out of the atmosphere.”

The pellet makers and their supporters dismiss the criticisms, saying their industry will help lower greenhouse gas emissions over time, in part by giving landowners an incentive to plant still more trees. “Healthy markets have contributed to a 50 percent increase in volume of trees since the 1950s, which help offset 15 percent of U.S. carbon emissions annually,” said Gretchen Schaefer, spokeswoman for the National Alliance of Forest Owners, a trade group.

The controversy is prompting renewed scrutiny of a rapidly growing industry that is reshaping Southern landscapes from coastal Virginia to the Gulf of Mexico. All but nonexistent a decade ago, pellet mills have sprung up in seven states to fill galloping demand for renewable fuels to reduce global dependence on coal and petroleum.

What is biomass?
Biomass fuels use energy from plants — corn, used to make ethanol, but also hemp, wood, sugar cane and even yard waste — to produce electric power. Burning plant matter as fuel also releases carbon pollution into the atmosphere, but that carbon can be reabsorbed by new crops, especially in the case of fast growers such as hemp and switchgrass.

The popularity of wood pellets as a fuel is being driven largely by government policies. Facing mandates to cut back on coal, European governments are offering generous subsidies to utility companies that switch to biomass and other renewables. The price break makes wood pellets — easily twice as expensive per ton as coal — affordable. For formerly coal-dependent countries such as Britain, wood pellets are an especially attractive option because they can be burned in the country’s existing coal-fired power plants without significant modifications.

As a result, demand for wood pellets is soaring, particularly from the United States. U.S. exports of wood pellets doubled between 2012 and 2014, from 2 million tons to 4.4 million, and climate policies are expected to drive even higher increases over the next decade. After surpassing Canada in 2012, the United States “continues to be the largest wood pellet exporter in the world,” an April report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration stated.
U.S. companies are now racing to keep up with demand. The country’s largest producer of wood pellets, Enviva, based in Bethesda, Md., has built six pellet mills in four states since its founding in 2004 and recently announced plans to build three new ones. The company operates its own deep-water terminal in Chesapeake, Va., loading sea­going barges with nearly 1.5 million metric tons of wood pellets every year, most of them bound for Britain.

To qualify for European contracts, Enviva must certify that its wood pellets emit 60 percent less carbon pollution than coal, Enviva spokesman Kent Jenkins said. “In fact, our audits show that we produce 80 percent less,” he said.

Unlike other wood-pellet companies that use dedicated pine plantations as their primary source of wood, Enviva buys logging rights from farmers and other private holders. Once the timber rights are secured, Enviva dispatches its crews to harvest the trees and haul the logs and brush to one of its pellet mills.

There, the wood is ground into sawdust and then fed into a machine that uses heat and pressure to create dry pellets, a fuel that can be transported as easily as corn kernels and burned as readily as lignite.
To keep carbon emissions to a minimum, the company makes its pellets from low-quality wood that would be wasted or sold to pulp and paper mills, said Enviva Executive Vice President Thomas Meth.

“We take wood that was meant to be sold but doesn’t have a home,” Meth said. “If you come to our plants, you will see trees that are crooked, diseased or rotten. You can’t use them for saw timber or for a telephone pole.”

Multiple studies support the notion of using discarded wood — the parts of harvested trees that would otherwise be wasted — as a source of biomass fuel. But the problem comes when whole hardwoods are cut down to be burned in power plants, scientists say.

Wood is less energy-dense than coal, so it takes more of it to produce the same amount of electricity.

And because oaks and maples mature slowly, it takes decades for new saplings to absorb the amount of carbon dioxide that escapes from a chimney when the trees are burned, scientists say.

“All biomass emits carbon when it’s burned, but when you burn a tree, you’ve liquidated a lot of carbon into the atmosphere and you have to wait a very long time to recapture it,” said Mary S. Booth, an ecologist and director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity, a nonprofit research organization that focuses on biomass energy. “The truth is you’ll never re-sequester all the carbon you release.”

Environmental groups sharply contest Enviva’s claim that it predominantly uses tree waste. Photographs supplied by activists showed trucks entering an Ahoskie, N.C., plant loaded with mature trees. During a visit last week to the plant, a reporter also observed a steady stream of trucks entering the front gate, each hauling trailers stacked with up to 50 freshly cut tree trunks, many of them more than a foot in diameter.

Enviva officials assert that even larger trees qualify as “waste” because they are unsuitable for other uses. In the past, the trees would have been cut and sold for pulp, Meth said. Robert C. Abt, a professor of forestry at North Carolina State University who has extensively studied the pellet industry, acknowledged that companies and their critics often clash over what constitutes “waste” timber.

“Everyone has a reason to be vague about it,” Abt said. “It’s not necessarily scraps from a harvesting operation. It can be a tree that doesn’t have another use, in an economic sense. It might be a tree that is perfectly straight and of a decent size.”

But the bottom line, activists say, is that the companies are using the wrong kinds of trees to make pellets.

“The pellet industry and the [British] utility have been deceptive about the sources of wood they use,” said Derb S. Carter Jr., a Chapel Hill, N.C., attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, a nonprofit group that has conducted its own investigation of the company’s practices. “Enviva’s Web site says they’re using only waste wood, but you can follow the trucks to the harvest sites and see what they’re doing.”

The data
Carter’s group recently hired a private research firm to analyze Enviva’s logging practices to measure the net impact on greenhouse gas emissions over a 40-year time scale. Under guidelines set by Britain’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, biomass fuels are required to be “cleaner” than coal, producing no more than 285 kilograms of heat-trapping carbon dioxide for every megawatt of electricity produced.

Because they come from hardwoods, Enviva’s wood pellets fall short of Britain’s standard by a wide margin, according to the research firm, Spatial Informatics Group. An advance copy of the firm’s report was obtained by The Washington Post.

A study last month by the Natural Resources Defense Council reached a similar conclusion about cutting whole trees for fuel. The report found that the practice “can increase carbon emissions relative to fossil fuels for many decades — anywhere from 35 to 100 years.”

“This time period is significant,” a summary of the report stated, continuing, “These emissions will persist in the atmosphere well past the time when significant reductions are needed.”

Enviva officials disputed the reports, saying their own data — backed by independent reviewers hired by the company — shows substantial benefits over coal over the long term. Company officials cited an Agriculture Department report this year that said wood pellets “can deliver very significant greenhouse gas savings, compared to fossil fuels,” when forests are responsibly managed.

“We get audited by our customers frequently, and they know exactly what we do,” Meth said. “We’re very comfortable with our performance from a carbon perspective.”

The concern over emissions is compounded by what ecologists describe as a growing threat to forests and wildlife in the Southeast as demand for wood pellets grows. In North Carolina, the heaviest logging is occurring in flood plains and wetlands that are among the region’s most productive natural habits. In Georgia, where most of the trees for wood pellets are grown on pine plantations, natural forests are rapidly disappearing as landowners see new opportunities to make money, said Ben Larson, forestry and bio-energy program manager for the National Wildlife Federation.

The landscapes most at risk, Larson said, are traditional Southern savannas with a canopy of tall pines and an under story of grass and shrubs that provide food and shelter for wildlife. With more land converted to pines to make wood pellets, the vital under story is disappearing, replaced by stands of fast-growing pines that are raised as a cash drop.

“The result may be more ‘forests,’ but they will mostly be pine plantations,” Larson said. “And that’s bad for wildlife.