If you currently own a hybrid vehicle or ride a light-rail mass-transit train to work, you probably fancy yourself an environmentalist who is doing your part to rid the world of the scourge of pollution. And you’d be partially correct. Both forms of transportation rely on electricity and, as such, don’t release as much “end of the pipe” exhaust, unlike gas-powered cars, trucks and SUVs, which contribute substantially to atmospheric CO2.
But since most people are physically (and, hence, emotionally) removed from the source of their electricity, they rarely think about the coal plants that produce it and the toxic and hazardous byproducts, such as sulfuric acid and mercury, that the power stations release into the air and flood into the ground. According to a 2009 report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, two sources, coal and natural gas, comprise 68.3% of the electricity generated in this country.
Proponents of alternative fuel insist that we have other options at our (un)disposal, especially considering the abundant lumber tailings coming from sawmills. A typical sawmill processes 5 to 60 million board feet of lumber annually, which, at the very least, produces enough sawdust “fuel” to power its own operations. The technology to convert wood chips and shavings into biofuel, while still in its infancy, is available, and many scientists estimate that sawmill and construction waste products could eventually supply 20% of the world’s electricity.
So why isn’t this shift happening right now? The impediments to quitting coal are some of the same barriers that prevent the U.S. from getting off petroleum oil and other fossil fuels. In a way, it’s akin to a smoker trying to quit. The habit (infrastructure) is firmly entrenched, the budget has made room for the daily fix, and the upfront cost of using nicotine replacement therapy (research and development) appears overwhelmingly huge, even though, in the long view, the cumulative money saved from quitting would outpace money spent on the patch within a matter of weeks.
This explains why certain developing countries, like Sri Lanka and Nigeria, which were never addicted to petroleum in the first place, are readily taking the plunge and building 14-megawatt wood-waste power plants. Of course, the U.S. Congress is attempting to follow their lead.
We may not be going cold turkey anytime soon, but a recently proposed “renewed biofuel standards” might motivate us to at least cut back to a half-pack. The EPA’s goal is to use one billion gallons of biomass fuel by the year 2022. That’s a pretty paltry sum, but the proposal is also exploring new ways to “refinance existing renewable fuel investments,” which includes loan guarantees and financial aid “for collecting, harvesting and storing” biomass materials.
And like any quit support group will tell you, thinking about quitting is the first step toward success.