After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many nations are realizing that they are exceedingly vulnerable to just-in-time energy supplies, as well as to the outsized power of near-monopolistic energy states. In response, one of the energy strategies that world leaders are now pursuing is to shift away entirely from polluting, high-carbon energy sources such as coal, oil, and natural gas to renewable energy, electric vehicles, and electric heating.
This situation has led to a renewed emphasis on an ancient but problematic energy source: the combustion of wood. Or, to be more precise, the burning of “biomass”—that is, the burning of any plant matter that is already a part of the existing carbon cycle, be it weeds, corn, soybeans, leaves, roots, sawdust, sugarcane, stumps, lumberyard waste, bark, roots, stumps, or the leftover “slash” from clearcutting a forest. In reality, however, the use of biomass usually comes down to grinding up logs into quarter-inch long pellets, shipping them thousands of miles to converted coal-fired generating plants such as the Drax facility in England—the world’s largest—and then burning the pellets in a conventional coal boiler to generate electricity or heat. This is because firms that produce biomass pellets require consistency and reliability in their product, which is shipped around the world, in a form that easily replaces coal. (The pellets can be easily shoveled, put on a conveyor belt, or otherwise fed into a hopper, where they go into the flames of the furnace.) While some localized facilities may use wood scraps and other biomass waste onsite, most biomass burned today for heat and power comes from special purpose, large-scale tree plantations. In theory, this practice could replace some of our existing dependence on the burning of fossilized carbon with the burning of a renewable material that is already part of the existing carbon cycle; after all, plants are renewable, given enough time to regrow.
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