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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > See the Forest for the Trees

What’s that old saying about not seeing the forest for the trees? Well, look again.

An old form of energy — waste wood — is coming back as a. signifi­cant, renewable and relatively clean source of heat. Both utilities and industrial plants now are showing keen interest in utilizing woodchips, sawdust and bark discarded by saw­mills as well as large quantities of “slash” such as forest residues, diseased or rotten trees. The forest products industry long has used waste wood and even here its use is on the upswing in re­placing the industry’s fossil fuel needs. But only recently has the full potential of this resource been given solid focus.

A special Business Week report estimates wood waste could replace 21 percent of the coal, oil and gas -used in generating electricity for the nation.

In some areas, such as Washing­ton, Oregon and California, waste wood can generate all the electricity. The report says

“Wood burns cleanly, is cheaper than fossil fuels, is often easier to get, and requires no new technol­ogy.”

Astonished companies are finding truth in these observations. A large textile manufacturer in Alex­ander City, Ala. is installing a wood-burning boiler designed to cut the plant’s fuel bill in half and save about six million gallons of oil a year.

Ben Russell, head of a local company buying waste wood from sawmills, notes that with the inven­tion in 1970 of the Chiparevstor, which reduces unmerchantable trees to wood chips in 30 seconds, “we can guarantee the supply of wood chips and waste wood on a contractual basis for decades.”

In Vermont, the Green Mountain Power Company is planning to con­struct a wood-fired power plant. Pollution abatement equipment for wood is much cheaper than for coal, the company says, since there is no sulfur dioxide and the leftover ash is easy to catch and collect as a com­mercial by-product. Wood-fired plants are designed small to keep transportation costs for the waste wood catching area at an economical level.

In nearby Maine, waste wood advocates are very enthusiastic. An economic impact study by the Maine Wood Fuel Corporation concludes:

“By 1985 it will be possible to re­place all oil currently used for the generation of electricity through the development of wood-based elec­tricity. This will result in a signifi­cant number of new jobs for Maine people, in wood harvesting and deliv­ery, in power plant construction and in the maintenance and operation of wood-fueled plants.

“It is estimated 1,800 new jobs will be created as a direct result of the new industry and as many as 10,000 jobs will be indirectly created by 1985, making a major contribution to the reduction in unemployment.”

Keeping the $200 million a year Maine spends to import oil in the state can generate some of this economic activity, according to this study.

At a bioconversion conference here this month: John R. Quarles Jr., deputy administrator of the Environ­mental Protection Agency, referred to a recent EPA analysis which said “surplus and waste forest biomass in the South Atlantic, Mountain and Pacific regions could be used to off­set nearly all the oil and gas con­sumed by utilities in those regions.”

Quarles noted proper efforts in this direction actually could benefit the forest ecosystem.

Other speakers at the confer­ence painted a glowing picture of various forms of solar-energized plant life as energy sources.

Dr. Donald Dever of the Canada Grains Council observed:

“There is no identifiable physical quantitative barrier to a great expansion and exploitation of renew­able biomass, not only as an energy source, but for food, fibre, feed­stocks, structurals and pharmaceuti­cals.”

Just a short time ago, after tens of billions of dollars and many un­resolved safety and economic problems, atomic energy passed wood as a source of energy for the country.

Now waste wood seems to be corn­ing back and, with high level prior­ity, could pass troubled and lagging atomic power within 10 years. It would be an ironic but beneficial les­son if we finally choose nature’s bountiful sun over man’s split atom.