Ask Smart Questions, Devise Smart Solutions

Whether we are talking about solid biomass, liquid biofuels, solar, propane or oil, we still need to think about the smartest use of the energy and how can it be most efficiently deployed.
By John Ackerly | October 31, 2019

Much like other resources, forests can be sustainable. Solar energy seems limitless, but the panels still need to go somewhere. Roof tops and parking lots make the most sense from a sustainability perspective, but when agricultural or forest land is used, it makes less sense from this same perspective of sustainability. Wind is so important because turbines can be placed in water rather than land. Turbines in the ocean still have some impact on birds and fish, but the environmental impacts are less than many land-based wind farms.

Whether we are talking about solid biomass, liquid biofuels, solar, propane or oil, we still need to think about the smartest use of the energy and how can it be most efficiently deployed. Oil and gas have a vital role in our economy, so why use these fuels to heat our homes and run our cars?  Let’s use these resources sparingly, so they will be around for many years to come. The reason we are in this climate mess is because it was too easy, convenient and affordable to use fossil fuels at a scale that now threatens our species and so many others. 

Activists will continue to print bumper stickers saying, “Our forests are not fuel” and “biomass is worse than coal,” but we need to keep framing the debate over the smartest use of precious resources and continue to tout best practices in forestry management to ensure sustainability is at the heart of our industries. And we need to ensure that science, not politics, is driving decision-making as to how we decarbonize our economy and stop using fossil fuels at a rapacious and deadly rate. 

Biomass energy will likely never—and shouldn’t—be scaled to the extent of wind power. Solar is the darling of the renewable energy movement—and for good reason—but scaling up solar too large is problematic. My wife and I invested in solar panels because we have space on our roof to put them, but we would never cut down trees in the woods behind our house to add more panels. We also heated our house with a wood stove for decades, but would never cut down one of the big trees for fuel. We don’t need to. There is far more natural tree mortality in virtually any suburban neighborhood to heat a bunch of homes. That is a smart way to use rooftops and trees that topple over in our yards and streets. 

Scale, location, distance—these are all key factors in energy. I’m a big fan of producing and using energy locally.  When I went to buy my two tons of pellets yesterday (having switched from a wood to a pellet stove), I bought pellets from Pennsylvania, knowing the company uses mostly sawdust from sawmills—again, a smart use of a precious resource. I can’t wait for our grids to be full of electrons from wind turbines off the coast of Maryland because it’s too inefficient to get wind energy from Texas and Iowa. 

We can only come up with smart solutions if we ask smart questions. Trees can be a very smart way to reduce fossil fuel use, depending on how it’s done and at what scale. And now, it’s time to put down the laptop, turn on the pellet stove and enjoy a beer—at the proper scale.


Author: John Ackerly
President, Alliance for Green Heat
jackerly@forgreenheat.org
www.forgreenheat.com