Shipping American Firewood To Europe Is A Crazy Idea

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Shipping American Firewood To Europe Is A Crazy Idea

Postby Wilberforce » Wed May 29, 2013 8:49 pm

The Cost Of Energy (And Why Shipping American Firewood
To Europe Is A Crazy Idea)

Christopher Helman, Forbes Staff

With a bounty of cheap, clean-burning, plentiful natural gas, it’s impossible to justify burning American forests for electricity.

Reading in the Wall Street Journal this morning about how European companies are clearcutting North Carolina forests in order to make wood pellets to send back home as heating fuel reminded me of just how insane the global green movement has become.

Nevermind that pelletized wood is virtually identical to coal in terms of heat content and carbon emissions — the greens consider biomass sustainable and ostensibly carbon neutral because it can be regrown. As a result, Drax, the British power generator featured in the story, is converting its coal-burning plants to burn wood and benefitting from subsidies and carbon credits in the process.

According to the story, Drax, at one power plant “has converted one of its six units so far, and last year it sold about $90 million of renewable-energy credits to other companies, a spokeswoman said. After it fully converts two more units, Drax expects to burn about seven million tons of wood annually and collect about $600 million a year from renewable-energy credits.”

This is the insanity that can result when bureaucrats, not the free market, get to say that some fuels are better for the world than others — even when they aren’t.

Granted, there’s some cases in which it makes sense to use wood as fuel today. Across Colorado millions of acres of pines have been devastated by boring beetles. As I’ve written about in Forbes Magazine before, there’s a good business in clearing those dead trees out of the forests and pelletizing them before forest fires burn it all up anyway.

In Texas, too, there’s a new business in ripping out mesquite trees — an invasive species that has destroyed the prairies — to turn them into pellets for Europeans. But in general (absent goofy European carbon credits and subsidies), clearcutting American forests to heat European homes makes little sense. That’s because American wood doesn’t even make sense as a way to heat American homes, let alone Europeans.

According to calculations done by the Energy Information Administration in March 2013, using wood pellets is a far inferior choice to natural gas or coal. Here’s the cost ranking of basic heating fuels to the average residential customer, as determined by EIA, per million Britsh Thermal Units of energy content (for reference, 1 Btu is about as much heat produced by burning a single wooden match).

Natural Gas: $7.20 per mmBtu

Coal (Anthracite): $8 per mmBtu

Wood: $9.10 per mmBtu

Wood pellets: $15.20 per mmBtu

Propane: $26.70

Fuel Oil: $29 per mmBtu

Kerosene: $32.70 per mmBtu

Electricity: $34.30 per mmBtu

Those figures were just for the cost of getting the raw fuel to your home and show that natural gas is far and away the most cost effective energy source. But it’s not enough to just look at the cost of the raw fuel. To have a legitimate comparison we have to take into account the efficiencies of the furnaces and boilers that turn the fuel into heat.

The most efficient (approaching 100%) are electric baseboard heaters and unvented natural gas burners. The lowest efficiencies are found in wood-burning stoves — 63% for a non-catalytic heater, 72% for a catalytic heater and 78% for a pellet stove. Coal-burning furances have a 75% efficiency. Heater efficiency is comparable to fuel efficiency in a car. All things equal, you’d be better off paying $5 a gallon to drive a car that got 25 mpg versus paying $2.50 a gallon to fill a car that only got 10 mpg.

So taking into account furnace efficiencies, here’s the ranking of heating sources by why you pay to actually get the heat into your house:

Natural gas: $8.80 per million Btu

Coal: $10.70 per million Btu

Wood (catalytic heater): $12.60 per million Btu

Wood (pellet stove): $19.40 per million Btu

Propane: $34.20 per million Btu

Electricity: $34.50 per million Btu

Fuel Oil: $37.10 per million Btu

Kerosene: $40.80 per million Btu

The conclusion is clear. Heating your home with natural gas will cost half as much as heating with wood pellets, and one quarter the cost of fuel oil.

And then there’s the environmental effects to consider. Here, according to data from the EIA and, is the ranking of how many pounds of carbon dioxide is emitted per million Btu of energy for our most common fuels.

Nuclear power: virtually nil

Natural gas: 117 pounds

Propane: 139

Gasoline: 157

Heating oil (or diesel): 161

Wood: 205

Coal (bituminous): 206

Coal (lignite: 215

Coal (anthracite: 229

So, once again, not only is natural gas vastly cheaper than wood, but its carbon emissions are more than 40% less.

And there’s some other external factors not considered in the simple carbon emissions numbers. When you clearcut a living, thriving forest to make pellets, there’s a host of other carbon outputs. First, the forest will immediately stop absorbing carbon and stop emitting oxygen. Then you will need a lot of internal combustion engines burning diesel to transport the wood to the mill, and grind it up. You’ll need natural gas (or biomass) to power heaters to dry the material and squeeze it into pellets. Then more diesel engines to transport the pellets by train or truck to ports, then to power the ships to get it to Europe. Then more diesel engines to take the pellets to biomass burners.

There’s processing and transport emissions tied to the production of coal as well, but I strongly suspect that because the coal industry operates on such a larger scale (1 billion tons per year of coal in the U.S. versus about 15 million tons of wood pellets), the amount of ancillary carbon emissions tied to coal production is much less than those incurred in pelletizing and transporting wood.

And what’s the upside of the biomass cycle? Replanted forests suck up carbon at a faster rate than the old ones did. Is that enough?

To be sure, there’s plenty of wood and forests in the United States to keep us in lumber, plywood and paper pretty much forever. The United States has never had a thicker forest cover since colonial times. According The State of America’s Forests, net deforestation in the United States ended a century ago and the volume of hardwood and softwood trees standing in U.S. forests has grown by half since 1953. In some Big Forest states like Oregon forests have rebounded as harvests have dropped to a third of the volumes cut in the 1960s. That said, anyone driving through Oregon quickly gets used to the sight of clearcut hillsides, denuded of firs. Despite kneejerk antipathy to clear cutting, the practice is not only the most efficient way to harvest timber, but the best way to get the next generation of saplings the full sun they need to grow fast, and suck up carbon.

Keep in mind that once a tree is turned into lumber and used to make a house, it’s not as if the carbon sequestered in that tree is suddenly released into the atmosphere. No, rather the carbon simply continues to be sequestered in that house. No matter what fractured logic the green lobby has convinced the European bureaucrats to believe in, burning American forests is not a smart way to keep carbon out of the atmosphere. Better to burn natural gas, and those forests into new homes.

source ... it-sounds/

Carbon Credits for Burning U.S. Forests? ... us-forests
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