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Wood Pellets, Jobs, a Bigger Picture

Paul Kando

In the news: How to save wood pellet and forest product industry jobs. Some talk of subsidies. I propose a comprehensive Maine energy policy.

Burner unit for a wood pellet heater
photo credit: Wikimedia

Think of them as energy apples and energy oranges: solar, wind and hydro are renewable energy technologies, while firewood, wood pellets and other biomass are, just like coal, oil, and gas, fuels. Fuels are burned to release their stored energy, accompanied by emissions. Renewable energy technologies harness energy, directly or indirectly, from the sun – a process not accompanied by emissions. Fuels and energy technologies are fundamentally different, especially when it comes to economics.

Fuels are consumed in the production of energy, technologies facilitate the collection and conversion of energy. Fuels must be replaced by more fuel. Technologies last a long time, replaced only when equipment fails due to aging. Furthermore the renewable energy harvested is free. Therefore, once installed, renewable energy technologies become less and less expensive compared to fuels – especially when emissions are factored in.

Fuel supplies are finite. This makes fuel prices subject to market fluctuations and fuels to price-compete, regardless of their relative merits or performance. Low oil prices, for example, make wood pellets relatively expensive – precisely the current situation in Maine. Meanwhile the supply of energy delivered by solar and wind technology is, for practical purposes, unlimited – and free. No matter what fuel I may depend on, my energy costs keep accumulating, regardless of day-to-day fuel prices. But using solar energy, there is no such cost accumulation – the longer I live in my solar house, the more money I save.

On the other hand, the supply solar and wind energy is predictably intermittent. There is a persistent need to “fill in the supply gaps” — on cloudy or windless days and during the night. One way to do this is by storing energy – in batteries, for instance – when the energy-income is plentiful, for use when it is not. Another way is to generate backup power, using a fuel. Which is the better option? Certainly not a fossil fuel, because of its emissions.

Intermittent energy supplies – solar, wind – are an ideal match for wood pellets in an integrated energy system. A comprehensive renewables-based energy policy, based on locally available energy options and sound science would encourage the development of Maine’s indigenous energy industries and create stable, decent-paying jobs. And we could pay for the transition with dollars retained in Maine’s economy by no longer paying for imported fuels.

There is even a blueprint for such a policy in a recent Stanford University study. It calls for a mix of wind, solar, hydroelectric, wave and tidal power. It would reduce the price of electricity, create thousands of jobs and pay for itself in 7 years from air pollution & climate-cost savings alone. All we need to do is customize such findings to fit our local needs and energy supplies – like our wood pellets utilized in combined heat and power applications and methane reclaimed from organic wastes to run municipal vehicles on.