Donate Today!

Reverence for Energy – An Op Ed for Local Wood and Grass Energy

In the Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan writes that we eat by the grace of nature. What kind of attitude might lead a person to consider food as a blessing at every meal? One way might be reverence – a moment of awe for the incalculable processes enabling our nourishment. What if we developed the same kind of reverence for our energy?

Reverence for energy might mean we would be more conscious of where it comes from and how it is created. We might be more knowledgeable about the life cycle costs of energy types. One type of energy that we believe has lots of upside is what we call Organic Energy. Organic energy uses modern and clean boilers and stoves to create heat and electricity with fuel made from locally harvested trees and grasses. Organic energy burns cleanly, creates local jobs to grow, harvest, and process the fuel, and cycles carbon quickly. Wood has been used for centuries to heat homes and now with new technologies can safely heat and power public facilities and commercial buildings on an institutional scale.

Organic energy provides 5 powerful benefits:

1. Affordability

The chart below shows how wood energy’s cost per heat unit has stayed roughly the same and less than all the other types of commonly used fuels, including oil and natural gas. Price stability is one consideration for facility managers to consider when planning new energy capital expenditures.

1970-2015 VA Energy Prices Figure 1: Average price ($/MMBTU) Virginia heating fuels 1970 – 2015. Source: US Energy Information Agency State Energy Data System, Virginia.

2. Jobs

Folks in rural communities understand how important farmers’ expenditures are to Main Street. There are many multiplier effects associated with the growth, sale, and distribution of agricultural products. A vibrant local forest products industry has the same kind of positive impact on rural commerce. Organic energy expands the agriculture and forestry sectors by creating demand for wood and grass fuels and keeps energy dollars circulating in the local economy. Demand for organic energy creates jobs for the planting, harvesting, milling, distribution, and retailing of local wood and grass fuels, along with the engineering, installation, and maintenance of the modern boilers that use these fuels.

3. Regenerative economy

Rural areas provide clean water, air, and wildlife. Economic development officials for years have been trying to find ways to monetize more of these kinds of “environmental services” to support landowners for conserving these services from nature. Government officials are realizing that as urban areas are increasingly required to neutralize their environmental footprint, the cost to protect natural infrastructure (forest) is less expensive than built infrastructure (stormwater pond) required to provide similar services. Some call the notion of a rural economy providing environmental services for the public and private sectors a regenerative economy.

4. Healthy forests and native grasslands

Forests and native grasslands clean our air and water and are habitat for wildlife.  Common thought believes they should be left alone in a natural state. But most of Virginia’s forests and grasslands are unnatural – because fire has been excluded and because we have replaced our native warm season grasses (switchgrass) for cool season grasses (fescue). Fire rejuvenates new growth needed by quail and butterflies that depend on the weedy, annual plants that only appear in the first few years after a forest or meadow fire. Forest and native grass management, done ecologically, can mimic fire’s positive effect on landscape. Demand for organic energy provides revenue for landowners to actively manage their forests and grasslands – resulting in a Virginia landscape with greater genetic diversity, generating many more ecological and societal benefits than if simply left alone.

5. Healthy climate

Through photosynthesis, plants take in carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air and use it to grow. Plants contain 25% carbon so we can think of trees, grasses and soil as a carbon bank. This biological carbon bank stores carbon for short periods of time (seconds to centuries). Another carbon bank is our rocks and oceans. This geologic bank stores carbon for long periods of time (millennia). The carbon withdrawn from this bank is fossil fuel. Increasing levels of CO2 causes ocean acidification and is having a net negative impact on climate for humans. We think it’s a good thing to substitute raw materials made of geologic carbon with raw materials made of biological carbon whenever possible. Why? Because once geologic carbon is released, it will be millions of years until it is absorbed from the atmosphere back into the earth.

In the months ahead, the Center for Natural Capital, a non-profit organization using innovative business models to conserve and restore ecosystems, will increase efforts in this arena. We will expand the Virginia Community Wood Energy Program to become the Virginia Community Wood and Grass Energy Program, to reflect the emerging understanding of the importance of perennial grasses and crops to our and other species’ health. In addition, we will pilot a new brand of organic energy to better communicate the benefits of combined heat and power from local wood and fuel grasses to those consumers interested in a more conscious approach to their home and institutional energy use.

Michael Collins, Brian Becker, Betty Dixon, and Al Weed

Michael Collins is the Executive Director of the Center for Natural Capital. The Center provides consulting and commercial services spanning four channels – energy, rivers, landscape, and people. In the months ahead, the Center will expand its wood energy initiative to become the Virginia Community Wood and Grass Energy Program to reflect the emerging understanding of the importance of perennial grasses and crops to our and other species health. Brian Becker is the Program Manager of the Virginia Community Wood Energy Program. Betty Dixon is a Social Scientist Consultant to the Program. Al Weed is a Member of the Board of Directors of the Center.


Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.