the technology of burning stuff

Over the past several months, in both my professional and private capacities, I have been involved in the area of alternate energy, and particularly in what is now fashionably called "biofuel.

Over the past several months, in both my professional and private capacities, I have been involved in the area of alternate energy, and particularly in what is now fashionably called “biofuel.”

“Biofuel” is organic material that you burn to produce heat and/or electricity. In other words, where the Yukon is concerned, it is really just a fancy way of talking about burning wood.

In other parts of the world, biofuel is probably more properly called “agrofuel,” since it involves turning some kind of farm crop (mostly corn, in America, mostly sugarcane in places like Brazil) into alcohol so you can then burn it to produce heat or energy.

Biofuel zealots (who becoming daily more numerous and vocal) tout “bioenergy” as green, renewable and natural, as opposed to fossil fuels, which they present as polluting, depleting, and, in some odd twist of logic, “unnatural.”

Though I am convinced of the overall value of bioenergy, I think it is worth putting in a few words of caution against this kind of well-intentioned but deceptive and potentially destructive bombast.

Coal and oil are as much a product of nature as trees and willows, and actually more strictly “natural” than man-created plant species like corn (which, in fact, seems to owe its whole existence to human cultivation, since it has no discernible plant relative in the wild).

It is true that coal and oil are nonrenewable resources, at least in the time frame of human existence; but it is also true that, on the evidence of present discoveries, we are a long, long way from actually depleting either resource – though in the case of oil we may have started running out of the low-hanging fruit portion of the supply.

The third claim of the zealots – that fossil fuels are dirty and bad for the environment – brooks no contradiction. Whatever their overall impact on global warming or climate change, it is blazingly evident on the city streets of Beijing that coal and diesel produce some pretty rotten air quality.

On the other hand, anyone who has walked the streets of Whitehorse in the summer, when there is a forest fire nearby, will know that wood smoke, though perfectly natural, is not particularly healthful or eco-friendly, either.

The Yukon so far has not had a very happy history with using wood to produce heat and energy on anything other than the domestic level of the wood stove.

The problems with the gasifier at Yukon College are something of a local legend; and there have been a number of failed attempts at using wood chip burners for energy production in several rural communities, all of which fell victim to problems of maintenance or reliability of fuel supply.

(A new such project is now going forward in Dawson City, I hope with better prospects of success.)

Given the current state of world oil costs, and their probable future, however, it would be pure folly if Yukoners did not look to some of the newer, more scalable and reliable wood-burning technologies that have come on the scene in the past 20 years or so.

Every tanker truck of gas or diesel coming up the highway represents a whole lot of local economic dollars going down the road.

The people of the Yukon effectively live in a great big forest with a few spots of civilization in it; it only makes sense that we should look to our immediate surroundings to address our needs for power and heat.

One biofuel expert I talked with at Yukon Energy’s recent energy charette in Whitehorse informed me that, by his calculations, a two-kilometre by one-kilometre strip of Yukon forest land would be sufficient to supply the electrical needs for each of our rural communities in perpetuity.

In other words, by the time we got finished cutting up the far end of that two kilometre strip, the front end would have grown back for cutting – so this would be harvesting, not clear-cutting.

Interesting stuff, to be sure; but at the moment those kinds of calculations are very much done on the back of an envelope.

We do not have a very good idea, yet, of just what the energy needs and production capacities of our communities are right now, or may be in the near future; nor do we have a clear idea of what kinds of wood harvesting and burning technologies are best suited to our needs.

Do we go big, and set up large scale wood boilers powered by wood chips, and upload power to the existing electrical grid and transport heat to buildings through a district heating system?

Or do we look small and think in terms of small harvest-and-burn operations based on wood pellet distribution to hoppers serving individual buildings or perhaps shared-energy compounds?

Do we have the right kind of supply to make this kind of energy sustainable? And what are the costs, both economic and social, for going this route?

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions, and I don’t think anybody else in the Yukon does, either. But I do know that asking them, and looking for answers to them, is a whole lot more productive that just zealotry and advocacy.

Let’s do the real science -and that means social science, too, not just technology science – on the costs and benefits of a wood-fired society.

Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.