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State: Whole trees count as renewable fuel

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State regulators today resolved one of the more nettlesome conundrums of green energy: Do forests and tree farms count as a renewable energy resource?

The N.C. Utilities Commission said that they do, clearing the way for power companies to harvest entire trees for wood chips to be used as a fuel in power plants. Wood and other biomass are expected to supply much of the alternative fuel that in the coming decades will offset the state's heavy reliance on coal and nuclear power to generate electricity.

Duke Energy, the state's biggest power company, is already blending wood chips with coal to meet its green energy mandates under the state's 2007 energy law, which requires power companies to shift to alternative energy sources.

"This decision by the commission further reinforces that biomass, including woody biomass derived from whole trees, is a viable renewable resource for North Carolina," said Duke spokesman Jason Walls.

The state law includes biomass as an alternative fuel, but doesn't define whether wood waste is merely sawdust and other scraps, or whether forests and tree farms also qualify.

Environmental groups fought Duke's request, contending that counting whole trees as a renewable fuel would risk the state's forest to over-harvesting. The advocates found an ally in Utilities Commissioner William Culpepper, who disagreed with his colleagues' decision.

"I am unable to accept the idea of the state legislature enacting law that permits the clear cutting of old growth forest land for electricity generation purposes without providing concomitant requirements for best forestry practices and/or other sustainability measures," Culpepper wrote in his dissent.

Duke and other power providers argued the state lacks sufficient amounts of wood waste as a stead fuel source. The company currently uses whole trees harvested through sustainable forestry practices, Walls said.

Last year the company issued a request for information for biomass fuel supplies, and the predominant biomass fuel offered was derived from whole trees.

Duke has been testing various blends of coal and wood chips at two power plants: its Buck plant in Salisbury, and the Lee plant in Williamson, S.C. Wood typically accounts for less than 5 percent of the fuel used in the mix.

The company plans to continue using Lee and Buck for further evaluation of co-firing wood and coal. In addition to whole trees, Duke also plans to buy logging scraps, sawdust and pre-commercial thinnings.

"For energy crops to be a viable fuel source, potential developers first need operational facilities with a demonstrated and projectable appetite for such fuel," Duke wrote in a filing.


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Editors collaborate with environmentalism

What a misleading article, starting with the headline. Also, take another look at the picture of the trees in the logging pile.  Only the few very smallest trees in that pile would be sent to a mill to be burned, but the picture helps mislead the reader.  I know, because I have been involed in timber harvests.

No one in their right mind, except maybe an anxious developer who stands to make $100,000,000 by turning a forest into another sprawl ASAP, would sell "whole trees" just to burn for electricity generation, (if what you mean by "whole trees" are big, lovely trees). Keep that thought in mind as you re-read the article.

Readers, do just a little homework to verify.  In just a few minutes I did a web search of wood prices and learned via Timber Mart South that chips for fuel usually sell for much less than 10% of what that same tree sells for when used for other, higher uses.  Large mature trees sell for 10 to 100 times as much to sawmills than they would for grinding into chips to feed to a boiler. Always have - always will.

So, where is the danger that "old growth trees" would be ground up to make electricity? Culpepper appears to have a campaign contribution to consider, because there is no danger unless the price of junk wood grows about 1,000% to 10,000% (yes, 1,000 to 10,000%; not a typo).

The editors surely know that referring to the trees as "whole trees" conjures up the image of a big, beautiful yard tree in the minds of its readers.  They also know that readers are overwhelmingly urbanites or suburbanites who go to parks to get a (distorted) idea of their "connections to nature".

Don't think I'm surprised with such an article as this. It's more of a matter of being fed up with intentionally misleading information.

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About the blogger

John Murawski has been a full-time newspaper reporter since 1991, with stints at Legal Times and The Chronicle of Philanthropy (both in Washington, DC), The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Palm Beach Post (in South Florida) before arriving at the N&O in December 2004. At the N&O he covers energy (nuclear, coal, renewable, efficiency), hydraulic fracturing (or "fracking"), public utilities and health care. His beat includes PSNC Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas, Duke Energy Progress, PowerSecure International, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, Novo Nordisk, Pfizer, Biogen Idec and others. He has also contributed more than 30 book reviews on topics spanning botany, history, science and religion. You can reach him at 919-829-8932 or e-mail him.