Home / General / Biomass is a Terrible Idea as a Major Energy Source

Biomass is a Terrible Idea as a Major Energy Source


You might think corn-based ethanol is the worst possible “green energy” alternative. And I’d like to think you are right. After all, turning the entire Midwest into a giant corn monoculture and destroying the remnants of a once fertile ecosystem in order to force an inefficient and dirty way to create ethanol on a nation all because of an already powerful industry with a huge lobbying arm is a pretty bloody awful idea.

But then there’s biomass. And sure, efficient use of plant resources makes sense. After all, the timber industry realized by the 1940s that rather than wasting all that sawdust and stumpage, turning it into wood alcohol or other products was a smart economic strategy that ultimately meant needing to cut less trees for the same amount of product. But biomass as a core alternative energy source? Only if you like massive deforestation.

In 2007, the European Union set an ambitious goal to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases to 20 percent below their 1990 levels by 2020. That, in effect, required power plants across the continent to quickly find new ways to make energy. Some turned to wind and solar. But for coal-fired power plants it was much cheaper to convert their facilities to burn wood. The conundrum for those companies is that much of western Europe doesn’t have sufficiently large forests left to meet the demand, and the remaining woodland is heavily regulated. So corporations turned to the Southeastern U.S., where wood is plentiful, and regulations about what can be done on private land are lax.

Wood pellet manufacturing in the U.S. is now booming.

Drax, Britain’s largest coal plant, is in the process of converting most of its operations to biomass fuel, and other power plants across the continent are following suit.

In 2008 Europe imported about 2.5 million tons of wood pellets. By 2012 it imported 9 million. And by 2020 it’s projected to import upwards of 20 million tons, largely from the United States and Canada, according to John Bingham of Hawkins Wright, a British forest products consultancy.


Quaranda said his group has documented several cases of forests clear-cut for biomass fuel. A Wall Street Journal report also found clear-cutting in North Carolina.

Seth Ginther, a lawyer with the U.S. Industrial Pellet Association, insists the pellet industry is not responsible for environmental damage. But he acknowledged that private landowners are free to do what they wish, including cut down whole trees on their land.

And in the South, where nearly 90 percent of land is privately owned, there is no law on the books requiring landowners to grow those trees back.

Dozens of biomass facilities have been built in the South. There are currently two in Louisiana, with eight more planned, according to Quaranda.

With a permit to build roads for logging in a protected area of the Atchafalaya pending approval from the Army Corps of Engineers, Dean Wilson worries he’s just seen the beginning of a decades-long battle to protect the woods he’s been looking after since the 1980s.

Now Wilson is trying to employ the same tactic he used when he found out retailers were selling cypress mulch taken from the Atchafalaya.

Biomass as a major industry basically means the elimination of the United States’ private forests. It would provide a lot of short term profit for companies and land-owners and unbelievably enormous long-term problems, including the destruction of ecosystems, huge losses of carbon-using greenery, erosion, degraded water quality, and widespread deforestation. And if anyone believes the idea that trees are a crop and thus will be replanted for future use, especially on private land, please contact me about the oceanfront property I have to offer you in western Nebraska. The regulatory regime on reforestation, especially in the South is basically zero.

Industrialized biomass is a terrible idea and while we need a multifaceted energy production future and while all energy production has a cost, this cost is completely unacceptable.

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  • Barry Freed

    I know that I’m going to take it on the chin here but what we need is nuclear power which is not run by private companies. Yes, Fukushima Daiichi gives me reservations but I still think it’s the only way out of our plight. Just give it to the US Navy or outsource it to Électricité de France.

    • There’s just not enough uranium in the world for nuclear to be a long-term solution. Not to mention all the problems with storage of radioactive material and the potential for Chernobyl-type disasters. It’s really a nonstarter. Even if you solve the other problems, you can’t solve the lack of uranium sources.

      • We can send a manned spaceship to the Sun, to mine for more.

        They can land at night.

      • ajay

        At present consumption rates, there’s 230 years’ worth. There’s enough uranium in the ground to give you 6.4 quadrillion kWh (16 million tonnes, times 400 million kWh per tonne), which equates to about four months’ worth of total world electricity production (20 quadrillion kWh per year) if my sums are right.


        • But if we are going to build big nuclear as a major solution, that 230 years is going to plummet once nuclear is a serious part of the world’s energy supply. And if it plummets to 50 years, is it worth it?

          • Barry Freed

            And if it plummets to 50 years, is it worth it?

            Hell yes, if it decreases reliance on hydrocarbons which is pouring CO2 into the atmosphere and in the meantime allows us to work on ever more efficient and cheaper solar sources like photovoltaics, wind power, geothermal, etc.

            • MattT

              The other big issue with nuclear is scale up time. Even if we start designing next generation, much safer fission plants today, there’s going to be years of design work and probably a decade of construction. It’s probably at least 15-20 years before you have enough plants online to make a serious dent in carbon emissions (which requires probably several hundred new plants worldwide). If you only wanted to build a smaller number using current designs, that could be done faster, but you’re still probably talking 10 years, and you’re now making a much more negligible impact on emissions. So despite claims that fission works now, I’m not very sold on it as a technology to buy time.

              • Murc

                Even if we start designing next generation, much safer fission plants today

                What’s wrong with the III+ generation in terms of safety and shelf life? Hell, the IV’s could probably have finalized designs within the next five years if we threw sufficient resources at it, and those things, to this layman, look tight.

                • MattT

                  5 years for design, 3-5 for permitting, and 7-10 to build is pretty consistent with a 15-20 year timeline for actually having plants generating substantial amounts of electricity, and that assumes we start doing it right now. If we had the will power to get things done that quickly, we could also do a lot of things that would help a lot faster than that.

            • Or we could start working on ever more efficient and cheaper solar sources like photovoltaics, wind power, geothermal, etc. now.

          • Rigby Reardon

            And if it plummets to 50 years, is it worth it?

            I haven’t actually done the math, because effort, but this really seems like an optimistic estimate to my eyes.

        • MattT

          There’s enough uranium in the ground to give you 6.4 quadrillion kWh (16 million tonnes, times 400 million kWh per tonne), which equates to about four months’ worth of total world electricity production (20 quadrillion kWh per year) if my sums are right.

          It’s also worth noting that if you’re concerned about total carbon emissions, electricity generation is not the whole picture. My memory is that it accounts for somewhere from a quarter to a third of total emissions. You’re also talking about transportation and heating. If you have lower carbon electricity, you can try running more transportation and heating with electricity, but now your usage numbers for that have gone up.

          • DocAmazing

            Nuclear-powered cars! What could possibly go wrong?

            • We’ll need lead shielding for the TruckNutz or they won’t be able to reproduce.

              • Schadenboner

                That’s a feature, not a bug.

            • MattT

              More “charge the electric car battery with electricity from lower carbon sources.” Which is a definite improvement if you’re doing something like making a lot of solar or wind power. If it’s “we’ll charge electric cars with nuke plants that will be done 20 years in the future” it’s not so helpful.

          • Snarki, child of Loki

            Just take a close look at how the French handle it. Roughly 80% of their energy is nuclear (some hydro too).

            So there are a lot of “all electric” homes, electric metro and intercity trains, etc.

            And, yes, they do fuel reprocessing too.

      • Helmut Monotreme

        Breeder reactors could, in principle, extract almost all of the energy contained in uranium or thorium, decreasing fuel requirements by a factor of 100 compared to traditional once-through light water reactors. Conventional Light Water Reactors extract less than 1% of the energy in the uranium mined from the earth.[3] The high fuel efficiency of breeder reactors could greatly dampen concerns about fuel supply or energy used in mining. Adherents claim that with seawater uranium extraction, there would be enough fuel for breeder reactors to satisfy our energy needs for as long as the current relationship between the sun and Earth persists, about 5 billion years at the current energy consumption rate (thus making nuclear energy as sustainable in fuel availability terms as solar or wind renewable energy).[4][5]

        from wikipedia.

        • I’ll believe that we have 5 billion years worth of energy when I see it. Given that I’ve never heard of this as a proposed solution to our energy problems, this sounds very, very far away.

          • Helmut Monotreme

            I am not a nuclear scientist. I understand that breeder reactors turn the non fissionable isotope of uranium (U 238) into PU-239 which is fissionable and can be reprocessed into reactor fuel. Most of the worlds uranium is U238 with only less than one percent being the fissionable U235. Being able to use U-238 as well as U-235 increases the amount of potential reactor fuel by around two orders of magnitude. People don’t like breeder reactors because they can produce weapons grade plutonium. But if one is seriously advocating nuclear fission as an energy solution, it makes sense to extract as much energy as possible.

            • BigHank53

              The other reason why people don’t like breeder reactors is that they make plutonium, period. Plutonium is a good deal more toxic than uranium, the half-lives of the isotopes are longer, and you need less of it to make a weapon. Breeder reactors are also susceptible to going ‘bang’, instead of just melting.

              • Snarki, child of Loki

                “The other reason why people don’t like breeder reactors is that they make plutonium, period. Plutonium is a good deal more toxic than uranium,”


                “the half-lives of the isotopes are longer, ”


                “and you need less of it to make a weapon.”


                “Breeder reactors are also susceptible to going ‘bang’, instead of just melting.”


                • DocAmazing

                  Plutonium is amazingly toxic. Vanishingly tiny amounts bring on cancers if inhaled. Uranium is also toxic (and in more than one way), but not to that degree.

                • BigHank53

                  I stand corrected on the half-lives of U235 and Pu239. I should not have trusted my memory after a couple decades of erosion.

                  Plutonium is more toxic chemically.

                  And breeder reactors do indeed have a failure mode that involves unscheduled explosive disassembly. It’s not a full-on fission bomb, but if you run a breeder reactor for too long, you wind up with more and more plutonium. Eventually you’ll overwhelm your neutron moderators and get a small localized runaway reaction. (Small by nuclear standards. Probably not even a kiloton.) This would never happen in a competently managed reactor. A review of recent industrial accidents gives me little confidence in the ability of human beings to competently manage breeder reactors once we have a couple hundred of the things running.

                • Snarki, child of Loki

                  Extreme plutonium toxicity is a myth. Wikipedia: “There were about 25 workers from Los Alamos National Laboratory who inhaled a considerable amount of plutonium dust during 1940s; according to the hot-particle theory, each of them has a 99.5% chance of being dead from lung cancer by now, but there has not been a single lung cancer among them”

                  It’s not nice-and-harmless, but neither are many elements (Be, Ra, Tl, etc).

                  Breeder reactors are not particularly more prone to explosion than normal power reactors, which *also* produce plutonium. In both cases, the buildup of fission poisons overwhelms the Pu production reactivity. I think you’re mixing up the issue of sodium coolant (chemical risk) with nuclear issues. ALL reactors have to be controlled to compensate for fuel burnup, breeders aren’t in any why special in this regard.

          • Aaron B.

            Shorter Erik Loomis: “If I haven’t heard of it, it doesn’t exist! And if you tell me about it I’ll ignore you.”

            • Seriously, people have been talking about breeder reactors for ages. It hasn’t gone anywhere mostly because the programs funding research for it got canceled.

              Erik Loomis not having heard of something doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.

          • Lurker

            Nuclear breeders can work in several ways:
            1) Having a light-water reactor (a normal nowadays power reactor) fuel reprocessed to reclaim plutonium. This improves fuel efficiency by some 30-60 % but is economically unfeasible at current prices.
            2) Having thorium converted to U-233 in a light-water reactor, then reprocessed into fuel. This would increase the amount of available fuel by a factor of 1000, but again, is economically unfeasible at current prices.
            3) Having a Generation IV plant or a specially designed LWR breed fuel. This is costly, but increases the amount of available fuel by a factor of 100.

            The problem is not the technology. It is well known and has been used in industrial scale. The problem is that it is expensive and causes a proliferation risk, which makes it politically very difficult for all non-nuclear-weapon states. As long as the nuclear fuel is as cheap as it is now, it makes no sense to use breeders or fuel reprocessing.

            On the other hand, if nuclear power were increased manyfold, fuel prices would go up, making reprocessing and more complex fuel cycles an ecomically feasible proposition. So, there is an essentially unlimited amount of nuclear fuel available, if someone just builds more nuclear power.

            • MikeJ

              Once you’ve driven the price of electricity up to the point where nukes make sense, all sorts of other stuff starts to look cheap.

              • Theophrastus Bombastus von Hoehenheim den Sidste

                Which is the point of the carbon tax.

          • ajay

            Given that I’ve never heard of this as a proposed solution to our energy problems

            You’re writing about energy issues and you’ve never heard of breeder reactors?
            Good grief.

      • Bill Murray

        Uranium is not the only source of nuclear power. there is like 40,000 years of energy production from Thorium with little chance of meltdown. Scale up would take a while because we chose Uranium in the 1960s as it has weapons potential that you don’t get from Thorium

        • Snarki, child of Loki

          Thorium breeding doesn’t work very well at all, which is why it’s never been more than a lab curiosity.

          In any case, it has very little to do with “chance of meltdown”, which depends strongly on design, and very little on the choice of fuel.

          • Bill Murray

            In any case, it has very little to do with “chance of meltdown”, which depends strongly on design, and very little on the choice of fuel.

            Well except that

            Meltdown is impossible, since nuclear chain reactions cannot be sustained, and fission stops by default in case of accident

            so choice of fuel does make a difference. For thorium to cause a meltdown, you have to have 100% utilization of all neutrons produced, which is exceedingly improbable.

            It’s true breeding is more difficult for thorium, but no weapons grade byproducts, atmospheric pressure operation (so no Fukushima-type accidents either), no plutonium produced, and the radioactive material left after 500 years is 10,000x less than for an equivalent amount of Uranium


      • Lurker

        What’s the problem with Chernobyl? It was an accident that killed 20 people directly and will cause lethal cancer to a few thousand people. However, the impact of radiation-related cancers is, actually, impossible to distinguish from background level of cancers, with very few exceptions. Statistical estimates place the death toll from 20 to 50 thousand people.

        On the other hand, carbon-burning related particulate emissions kill 200,000 people in Europe every year. If you compare the actual death tolls of different energy sources, nuclear is one of the safest. A few (and indeed, quite few) catastrophical accidents do not change this reality.

        • If you are asking “What’s the problem with Chernobyl?” as a serious question, I’m not sure we have too much more to talk about here.

          • Barry Freed

            Right, because no one is seriously proposing building graphite-moderated Chernobyl type reactors which are well known to be dangerous. I am not a nuclear engineer but there are a number of far safer much more modern reactor designs available.

          • UserGoogol

            Given the choice between destroying the world or destroying a few pieces of the world, the choice is obvious.

            • Gregor Sansa


          • Lurker

            What I meant is that the risks of nuclear are catastrophic by nature, but the catastrophes that take place every now and then are few and far between, and even their consequences are minor when compared to the very real routine, everyday deaths caused by combustion of fossil or biofuels.

            • MOre to the point (to my mind) is that Chernobyl poisoned an enormous physical area. Maybe thats not so noticeable in Russia, which is land rich, but the nuclear power plants around here, if they go up, would basically poison the entire eastern seaboard.

              • UserGoogol

                Chernobyl is in Ukraine, not Russia. Which does make things a bit denser, although Pripyat wasn’t exactly a big city or anything before the disaster.

              • Gregor Sansa

                Japan is not exactly sparsely populated, and not much larger than “the entire eastern seaboard”. And by no means is all of Japan “poisoned” now.

                I agree with the people who are saying “nuclear can’t be the main solution because it takes too long to ramp up”. But to get 16 wedges, or whatever it is these days that we need (definitely well over 8), we need to be pushing on every possible front. And yes, that includes nuclear. We really can build 10 times the nuclear plants and still have less than twice the accidents. Which is incomparably better than what’s going on, today, with the equivalent amount of coal plants.

              • N__B

                What if TMI had been Chernobyl? It’s been thought about.

        • joe from Lowell

          You just compared one nuclear plant with all the fossil fuel burning in Europe.

          • Lurker

            Actually, I’m comparing the casualties of the nuclear energy production in Europe during 1970-2014 with the casualties of conventional fossil fuel power generation of a single year. (Other casualties due to nuclear energy are negligible when compared with Chernobyl.)

            • joe from Lowell

              Oh, we’re pretending there have never been cases of cancer arising from the production, use, and storage of nuclear fuel?


              • Lurker

                I am not claiming this. I am claiming that such cases are negligible in number compared to Chernobyl’s victims. This can be seen very easily by comparing the radiation doses received by the nuclear workers and by the population around nuclear facilities.

                For example, let us consider Germany in 2010, when their nuclear industry was operating at normal level. Then, the largest dose received by any non-worker was for the “critical person” near Emsland Nuclear Power Plant. That person received 1.8 µSv during a year. For most plants, the value was an order of magnitude smaller. For German fuel cylce facilities, the critical person’s dose was below 0.01 µSv in 2010. An average person received less than 0.01 µSv from all non-medical, non-Chernobyl artificial radiation. The collective dose of population due to non-medical radiation is mostly caused by the workers, whose cumulative dose was in 2010 23 manSv. This corresponds to about 6 additional cases of cancer. If you multiply this with 5 (ratio of German population to European population), to get an estimate for total European yearly number of cancers due to routine operation of nuclear power, you’ll get 30. Over 50 years, this makes 1,500 cases of cancer, most of which are not lethal. Thus, the number is indeed quite negligible compared to the Chernobyl’s casualty estimate.

                And I am comparing the operation of nuclear power with the operation of combustion power plants. The risks associated with mining, transport and manufacturing are relatively similar, but because the nuclear fuel has higher energy density by severals orders of magnitude, the nuclear fuel production causes much fewer deaths per energy unit produced.

                • Gregor Sansa

                  Lurker is right. If nuclear counts as “bad”, then the power running your computer right now is in all probability “unthinkably horrific”.

                  (I realize that in Lowell you might have an option of buying “100% green power”. Which is good. But it’s mostly an accounting gimmick. You don’t actually get your own separate power grid.)

      • Trollhattan

        Keeping fingers crossed that NIF’s fusion work with the LIFE project becomes successful in something shorter than a deca-Freedman Unit.


    • Manta

      In the case of nuclear power, the market has decreed that it is an idiotic way to try to produce electricity: and I think in this case the market is right.

      As far as I know, it’s essentially impossible to find anybody willing to finance a plant with his own money, or an insurance company willing to insure it.

      France manages to use nuclear because it heavily subsidizes it (by e.g. dumping all the risks on the public).

      • Aaron B.

        The risks are already borne by the public. France is dumping the COSTS on the public. As long as the profits aren’t going in to private hands that seems like a reasonable thing to do.

      • tt

        The market won’t arrive at the right solution unless you tax all externalities correctly.

        • Gregor Sansa

          Right. Imagine if coal needed insurance for all the deaths it causes.

      • joe from Lowell

        If we leave it all to the market, we’ll burn coal until civilization collapses.

        Those of us with a sentimental attachment to civilization realize that it’s going to take some major government intervention to nudge our energy sector from one track to another. The question is, what track is best, not, what track involves the least government?

        • Anonymous

          Yes, this is one reason why I said give it to the US Navy or outsource it to France. And also because the market doesn’t give a shit about safety so it can’t be trusted.

          • Barry Freed

            the above was me. Firefox keeps losing my name.

          • Manta

            But generally the market does care about safety (as long as the state makes the owner pay the costs); as I said, you cannot insure a nuclear plant.

            It’s e.g. in France that the market does not care about safety because the state will cover the costs.

            • Snarki, child of Loki

              But generally the market does care about safety (as long as the state makes the owner pay the costs)

              Tell me how that’s worked out on the Elk River in WV, please.

              • Gregor Sansa

                Thank you, Snarki.

              • Jordan

                Uh, I think “as long as the state makes the owner pays the costs” is pretty relevant there.

                • Snarki, child of Loki

                  They just filed for bankruptcy.

                  This is one of the really obvious situations were corporations violate (allegedly) libertarian ideals: saddling unrelated parties with costs that the corporate owners (board and shareholders) can escape because of bankruptcy and the corporate legal structure.

    • carolannie1949

      There are a lot of issues with nuclear power, but the number 1 issue is water. Water is a requirement for cooling. TO get to water you have to put the plants in areas with water available. This means put them in areas prone to floods or droughts, especially problematic due to climate change. If there is a flood, all bets are off for how well the plants will handle this. If there is a drought, can we afford to have tons of water available for cooling when the area around the plant is clamoring for water?

      • Snarki, child of Loki

        That’s true for other types (coal, oil, gas, biofuel) of electric power plants, not just nuclear. They work off of the temperature difference, so you need water to get rid of the waste heat.

        Now, you can certainly use SEA water, just stay away from areas at risk of tsunami.

        • Manta

          I kind-of-remember that in Fukushima after the disaster the company did not want to use sea water because it would damage the system.

          • Yes. Sea water corrodes your complicated and expensive nuclear plant quite nicely, making it more complicated and more expensive and more dangerous.

          • Lurker

            A power plant with a steam turbine can use sea water for cooling. In such case, the steam is cooled down in a heat exchanger, where the steam goes into a set of pipes flushed with sea water. When properly designed, such a condenser lasts for decades.

            On the other hand, you don’t want sea water in your boiler, be it nuclear or conventional, because salt causes it permanent damage.

            • BigHank53

              The nuke plant in Seabrook, NH, uses a freshwater-to-saltwater heat exchanger. I remember hearing about a minor scandal when the employees were discovered harvesting the lobsters that had taken up residence in it.

              • Snarki, child of Loki


      • Bufflars

        There are several different cooling designs for power plants in semi-arid or water stressed regions that do not require nearly as much water as conventional designs, which usually involve air cooling. The drawback, however, is reduced overall efficincy of the power plant due to the larger electricity demand of these types of systems (air is a much less desirable heat sink than water).

    • Look: http://www.gizmag.com/organic-flow-battery-renewable-energy-storage/30433/

      Methods of storage seem to be getting cheaper and cheaper, making small-scale distributed methods of power generation more and more within reach.

  • malraux

    And if anyone believes the idea that trees are a crop and thus will be replanted for future use, especially on private land, please contact me about the oceanfront property

    FWIW, my family’s experience with tree farming is that the government pays pretty handsomely for tree farmers to replant their private land with more trees. I’d be much more concerned with opening up of public lands for clear cutting.

    • Don’t know where your family is from, but in the South, where much of this is taking place, there is no requirement for reforestation. In the Northwest, there is more of a tradition of replanting on private lands because of the industrialized nature of forestry in that region.

      There’s also the issue of ecology. What are you replanting? Is the forest just another resource like corn or wheat? Or does it have an ecological value beyond that, where a monoculture planted and cut and replanted over and over creates a severe ecosystem decline?

      • malraux

        Central Louisiana area. The numbers that I can find from the state indicate that the forest area is increasing slightly as marginal farmland is getting planted with trees.

        There might not be a requirement for replanting but the government does strongly incentivize replanting (making the cost nearly free). The timber/pulp and paper industry replants their land, all the hunting clubs replant their land to keep the value of the club up, my experience is that private individuals replant their land because what else would they do with it.

        The ecological issue is legit, but no more so than any other farmland issue. I don’t see the land that we have as a tree farm as all that substantively different than the land we have as a wheat, soy bean or corn farm, other than the trees have a different harvest time and can support deer, bear and other wildlife.

        • mantooth

          I just called my Father-In-Law in Louisiana – he works in forestry. It was hard to hear him at first over the sound of the tractor running the replanting equipment.

        • Thom

          There is a subsidy in Louisiana, but replanting is by no means free. Owners of timberland will only undertake replanting if they think it will make the land more valuable.

          • Thom

            And I have seen land owned by John Hancock in Louisiana, not replanted for more than three years. As far as I know, it is still not replanted. I have also seen land owned by a family that was not replanted. Some replant, some don’t. Planting is not cheap, and is certainly not free.

      • Lurker

        I’ve reforested, in Finland, some land where the forest had been completely harvested. (The land belongs to my in-laws.) This is not a atypical experience, as most Finnish forests in Southern part of the country are privately held by farmers in relatively small plots and intensively used for timber production.

        In Northern coniferous forest, which is pretty similar in Finland and Northern USA, reforestation is done either by sowing (works best for pine and birch) or by planting (works best in areas suitable for fir). Even if you try to make it a complete monoculture, surrounding forest will seed some minority trees there. Especially, if you reforest with coniferous trees, you will inevitably get birch and other leaved species into the mix, because they grow much faster during the first few years.

        Because the forest will grow for some 70-80 years before being cut down the next time, it will have quite a lot of ecological value in the meantime. It is not exactly similar location as a natural-growth forest, but it provides a lot of ecological niches, and the diversity of the forest can be improved a lot by relatively easy and cheap methods that are, for example, required by the PEFC certificate system.

        • Finland’s landmass is about 75% forests, and that’s actually grown since World War II, despite the boom in construction and industry there.

          • Lurker

            Very much because forestry is well regulated. Any fellings of private forests need to be reported beforehand to the state authorities, and the state authority also later checks that the cleared areas have been reforested. (You have three years to reforest and if the planting fails within 10 years, you’ll need to replant.)

            In addition to this, there is a very strong social control. Most forest owners belong to semi-official forestry associations which give consultation and training in the finances, planning and practical work of forestry. In practice, this means that most forest owners follow not only the actual law but also the official recommendations on best forestry practices.

            • There are lots of reasons why Finland increased…and still does to the tune of 75 million cubic meters each year…its tree cover. Among these, for instance, was wetland drainage and replacing native slow-growth trees with new species. I’m not sure how to feel about that.

              The government has tightly controlled forest resources for about fifty years now, and it was so tight that, at one point, Finland actually had to import wood for building, and was in serious danger of losing its share of the world timber markets. Economically, that could be a disaster for the nation, despite the recent shift to technology products.

              • Lurker

                On the wetland drainage issue you are correct. In some areas, it has proved to have been a unprofitable mistake, as those areas are marginal even for forestry. Little by little, they return to wetlands as ditches grow away.

                On the other hand, your reference to changes in dominant species is incorrect. Finnish forestry is dominated by Scots pine, Norwegian spruce (Picea abies, I mistakenly used “fir” for it earlier) and birch. These are native species. Nowadays, the environmental certification systems also allow planting of Siberian Larch, as this species will enter Finland as a part of its natural spreading pattern in two or three hundred years anyway.

                Other species have been tried, but they have proved to be worse both in wood quality and adaptability to Finnish conditions, so they never achieved wide use. This is in strong contrast to Sweden, where they really grow a lot of contorta pine.

      • Left_Wing_Fox

        Out in eastern Canada, there was a lot of talk about biomass because the production infrastructure is already in place, and is otherwise unused because of the soft market for softwood at the moment.

        Last I heard though, the Miramichi mills were changing to solar factories rather than pellet production plants.

      • JoyfulA

        Is there a need for hardwood for wood pellets? I know in South Carolina that a lot of private acreage is in pine tree farms. Fence posts are one product, and I suppose pulp.

        Anyway, farmers do cut trees and plant seedlings. Some places you can see from the road rows of various ages.

      • PSP

        In New England, trees are a weed. Virtually all of New England’s forest is third or fourth growth. I can take you to a number of places that were used agriculturally 40 years ago, which are forest now.

        I suspect that letting the forest just grow is better ecologically than the mono-culture you tend to get with replanting.

        • Lurker

          You’re quite right. Any level place left on its own in Northern Europe is covered naturally by forest. Only if the location is very susceptible to erosion (e.g. mountains, steep hillsides etc.), its soil may be completely flushed out.

          However, letting an area reforest naturally takes some ten to twenty years. If you plant or sow a forest artificially, you skip this phase and can shorten the recirculation time between fellings markedly.

  • Nick
  • JL

    Erik, what about algae as biomass? Isn’t the point of it that it can grow on very marginal land and that land-growing algae does better in forests? People shouldn’t need to compromise other land use to do it. And you can attach the big growths to CO2-emitting sources to absorb CO2.

    I’m not trying to propagandize; I’m wondering what, if anything, I’m missing.

    • It’s possible that algae could be part of a cluster of energy production that helps create a solution. My opposition isn’t to all biomass per se. But given how capitalism operates, that kind of investment is only going to come after all the easy and available sources of biomasses–the trees and plants that make up the planet’s green ecology–are eliminated.

    • elm

      The future is figuring out how to use kudzu as biomass. Solve two problems in one!

  • Have we ruled out using liposuction waste? Hollywood could supply energy for the whole country!

    • Helmut Monotreme

      I am now imagining some dumbass wingnut on fox demanding to nationalize the fat deposits of the poor.

    • Barry Freed

      Is that a fat joke, bear? Or are you just feeling sluggish after eating all that seal blubber.

      • It’s a narcissism joke.

        • Barry Freed

          I thought it was about me.

          • Seen an eclipse in Nova Scotia lately?

            • Barry Freed


    • Rigby Reardon

      If someone wants to buy all my extra pounds, I’m certainly listening.

      • Peelectricity.

        • joe from Lowell

          I have an amended version of this running through my head now.

    • KadeKo

      Used to be restaurants would give away their used fry oil to anyone, now there’s some infrastructure set up in some places to reuse it for $, so those who do have a dependable source. To show how normative it is, there have even been thefts.

      Part of me wonders when lipo clinics will start the same thing. Don’t even know if I’m kidding.

  • Why is it that an individual trying to commit suicide is considered a crime – and all attempts to prevent it, should be tried – but the guaranteed suicide by all of humanity, isn’t – and no attempts at prevention are possible or desirable or affordable?

    • David Hunt

      This is going to eliminate human life. It’ll send us into a pre-industrial dystopian hellscape after the resource wars and 90%+ of humanity has died off to acclimate to the the methods of food production that are available. Worst Case!

      Unless the Resource Wars go nuclear…

      • David Hunt

        Arrgh. “This isn’t going to eliminate human life”

        • Maybe not, but I’d hate to be one of the survivors.

          And even after many, many generations, civilization as we now know it, will never be rebuilt.

          The easily accessible resources were mined a long, long time ago.
          And whatever resources are left, will only be accessible via today’s technology – and, due to a lack of accessible resources for that technology, civilization as we know it, can never be rebuilt.

          A mix of small combo’s of hunter-gatherer-fisher and agrarian societies, will probably end up as our future – if we have one at all.
          The planet will be better off.
          The oceans will eventually clean up.
          Existing flora and fauna will thrive, and keep evolving.

          I’m sure fear, hatred, greed, and war will survive.
          And, I’m pretty sure, love.
          Those are all part of being human.

  • There are other sources of biomass other than wood. Generally biomass is a waste by product of some other process that is then burned in order to get rid of the waste and recover some of the disposal cost through electrical generation. They burn biomass of this type in Mexico, agave pulp after making tequila, Australia burns sugarcane bagasse, and in the South Pacific it is coconut shells. It is a way of getting some benefit back from stuff you were going to burn anyways.

    • One word: Bamboo. Nearly infinitely replaceable, widespread, and with a metabolism that puts bacteria to shame.

    • Joe Bob

      Very good point and there are many, many more examples. Two entities in my area are a university with a central heating plant and a cereal company. Oat hulls are a waste product of the cereal process that the university burns them for fuel.

      • DAS

        The smartest thing G.W. Bush ever said was “switchgrass”, although he managed to sound completely daft saying it.

  • ajay

    What strikes me here is that this is not a problem with biomass fuelled power stations, but a problem with the American South. If biomass burners were getting their biomass from plantations of trees that were harvested and replanted, just like spruce and pine plantations for the paper pulp business, this wouldn’t be a problem. And if biomass burning went away, idiot Southerners would still be clearcutting their woods and selling it as mulch or something.

    • The problem, other than calling southerners “idiots” which is a problem, is that there isn’t all this extra wood lying around unused. The vast majority of forests, especially in the South, are already harvested for industrial purposes. What’s happening in the South right now around biomass is the liquidation of those small parts of forests that have been left more or less untouched for a longish period of time.

      • ajay

        The problem, other than calling southerners “idiots” which is a problem

        Which I didn’t do. I called the ones who were clearcutting their ancient woods idiots.

        • Rigby Reardon

          It’s phrased in a very murky way. Either interpretation is reasonable.

      • ajay

        The vast majority of forests, especially in the South, are already harvested for industrial purposes.

        More could be planted. Most of the wood production of the UK comes from forests that didn’t exist sixty years ago – they’re deliberately planted pine and spruce, on very poor-quality soil.

  • Manta

    I was familiar with planting arable land with fast-growing trees in order to harvest them after a few years for biomass.

    But using forest tree was new to me.
    Also, I thought it made no economic sense to use “good” wood as pellet.

    • BigHank53

      The wood pellets that can replace coal need to be made of hardwood, which is slow-growing. The issue here–and it’s not made clear by the original post–is that increasing prices have made it more attractive to clear-cut mature forests. Which is, obviously, not a sustainable practice, since it’s going to take a lot longer to regrow a forest than it does to pelletize one.

  • Paul Klos

    “After all, turning the entire Midwest into a giant corn monoculture and destroying the remnants of a once fertile ecosystem in order to force an inefficient and dirty way to create ethanol on a nation all because of an already powerful industry with a huge lobbying arm is a pretty bloody awful idea. ”

    Umm you mean really a tri-culture since its Corn, Soy and Pigs but whatever. When did Iowa become not fertile? And you do realize there is reason long before ethanol that people stopped trying to grow barley or oats there – right – because too many other places have better climate(s) for them? You can still make long rotation into pasture and cattle with decent and profitable results (but even that is limited its a great option from a soil conservation/pest point but if you plan to rotate back you will never have the time to get an organic certification and so the best you can do is shoot for the boost of ‘grass fed’)profitability – but that requires a ton of added infrastructure and cost and expertise to work, however.

    Ethanol via corn is stupid at this point and I won’t contest it likely leads to farmers not looking for a more optimal rotation but before ethanol it was still more a less just a 2 crop system. Unless you want subsidize a lot more capital and or figure out a way to keep a lot more people back on the farm.

    • Ethanol did not create the corn monoculture obviously. But the high prices of corn did lead to even greater plantings of corn, including in land that had not been used before, destroying habitat for birds and other wildlife, damaging watersheds, and undermining the already heavily damaged and fractured ecosystem of the American Midwest.

    • Paul Klos

      Also I should add what you mean is biomass done wrong – there are lots of people an ideals to say perennial switch grass for biomass needs and co work with coal (even we are nature gas due to fracking now could be a export to China?).


      • Joe Bob

        Interesting link to the UofK study. I wasn’t aware that anyone was seriously looking at switchgrass for direct combustion. Although, when you look at similar materials there must be a good reason it’s not being used already. I see acres and acres of corn stalks that are just going to be plowed under in the spring, so why aren’t they collecting them and sending them to a biomass boiler?

        The main issue with cellulosic ethanol is that it’s still not a commercially viable process. I know of one pilot plant in my area but they are not yet able to economically produce a substantive amount of ethanol. An additional problem is that, regardless of feedstock, ethanol production is a water-intensive process and there are looming water supply issues in the regions where a lot of the corn ethanol production is taking place. There have already been cases of acute groundwater depletion on a localized basis.

        • Paul Klos

          Well for one thing every field is different. If you don’t have a lot fungus or pest issues its worth it to leave the corn till spring to prevent soil erosion and till it in and if its a fenced field you might plan to let livestock on it.

          I agree about other problems like water for biomass – but every industry does have its cost. All those rare earths the supper wonderful solar and wind use have cost too.

  • Scott P.

    It’s painfully obvious that the long-term energy solution has to be fusion power. The physics are straightforward, it amounts to a (fiendishly difficult) engineering challenge. It’s not entirely free of environmental concerns (particularly if tritium is used), but it has the virtue of being more efficient and productive the better we get at it.

    So why aren’t we devoting the resources to achieve this, a la the Panama Canal, the Manhattan Project, or the Apollo Program? There is ITER, but right now it is not scheduled to begin operations until 2027. The total cost of ITER is 15 billion Euros, a drop in the bucket. We ought to be devoting 20 times that to fusion research. It doesn’t help that Green groups have been agitating against fusion power.

    • pillsy

      Fusion power has been 20 years away for almost 60 years now.

      • njorl

        We’ve done essentially nothing at all to make it happen, when you consider the scope of the problem and the potential payoff.

        It’s the only avenue of energy research which has the potential to allow the developing world to live as prosperously as the developed nations. We face an eventual choice between the development of fusion power or fighting wars to force the bulk of the world to live in poverty.

      • Barry Freed

        It’s like Brazil.

    • Helmut Monotreme

      I think it’s mostly because science funding has been cut to the bone by shortsighted politicians pandering to the oil companies who are rolling in cash with the natural gas boom.

      There are some in the green community who are positive that a long lasting serious energy crisis is right around the corner, and will force everyone to adopt the conservation measures they favor. The last thing they want is virtually unlimited power. However all of the funding that group commands wouldn’t quite buy vegan pizza for the six of them.

      • njorl

        A long lasting energy crisis will not force everyone to adopt conservation measures. It will force the poor and weak to adopt conservation measures. Regardless, that’s not what’s happening. Instead, we are facing a carbon emissions crisis. That seems to be pushing the wealthy nations to burn as much fuel as they can before the world rebels at the notion, if it ever does.

        • Snarki, child of Loki

          Short term, humanity needs to move to carbon-neutral energy, probably with an overall carbon-negative economy.

          Longer term, humanity needs to stop “mining” resources, because they eventually run out.

          AND, importantly, to get the hell OFF of this one little planet where it’s just too easy to get f’ed up.

          • Helmut Monotreme

            Getting off the planet will never be a realistic option for more than a few hundred people unless energy becomes a couple of orders of magnitude cheaper. The energy costs of the 9+km/sec of delta v to achieve low earth orbit will keep most of us here. Which is not to say that moon and mars bases will never happen, but they will have to be far more self sufficient and efficient than current technology allows, because sending them supplies will be very expensive.

            To put it in perspective, Meteor Crater in Arizona was created by a nickel iron meteor about 55m in diameter. It is estimated to have weighed 300,000 tons. It was probably traveling in the neighborhood of 12km/sec when it hit. That impact was 10 megatons. So, it probably isn’t too wrong to say that putting 300,000 tons into a solar orbit would require about the energy released in a 10 megaton blast. 300,000 tons is a lot, but I doubt that it would be enough fuel and supplies to set up a self sufficient colony on the moon or mars.

    • Gregor Sansa

      Even if we “solved” fusion power tomorrow, in that we had a way to beat break-even, that would be 10 more years of research to make something usable, 10 years to build the first generation of a handful of reactors, 10 years for the second generation (a few dozen), 10-20 years to get the costs down to a reasonable level, and 10 years to build out. That’s 50 years, optimistically, before it starts to be a viable alternative at scale.

      It’s certainly something we should be spending more on. But it will do nothing to get us out of the bind we’re in today, or indeed for generations to come. At least next-gen fission could be up and running in 20 years.

      • ajay

        Even if we “solved” fusion power tomorrow, in that we had a way to beat break-even, that would be 10 more years of research to make something usable, 10 years to build the first generation of a handful of reactors, 10 years for the second generation (a few dozen), 10-20 years to get the costs down to a reasonable level, and 10 years to build out. That’s 50 years

        Which conclusively proves that the first nuclear power station was built in 1965, and nuclear power only became a viable alternative in 1995.

  • The way tree farming works for small land-owners in the south is basically 15 years in the Conservation Program followed by periodic thinning and regular straw harvesting. The goal ultimately is to have trees suitable for telephone poles after thirty or forty years. Trees removed by thinning can be sold for pulping or for the pellets. If a major portion goes into wood pellets you are doing it wrong. As far as criticizing a stand of long-leaf pine as a monoculture, that’s pretty much what the native forest used to be on the Alabama – Georgia coastal plain. There is a lot of wildlife, quite a lot of quail, rattlesnakes, deer and such as that. It’s not as healthy in some ways as an old growth forest, where there are dead trees on their side, providing habitat, but wildfires never really permitted too much of that anyway in the prehistoric South. Native longleaf pine communities are all about fire. Management and harvesting isn’t so different.

    • KY Blue

      Thanks for the insights regarding small acreage tree farming practices in the southeast.

    • JoyfulA

      Thanks for adding actual knowledge to my scattered observations and hearsay on the topic.

  • Last one out please remember to build those large stone heads, like on Easter Island?

  • NewishLawyer

    I hate to be that guy but I will be that guy:

    Do you hsve sny solutions for what humanity can use as alternative mass energy sources? I don’t think it is preferable for humans to return to the Shire or pre-Industrial society, nor do I find it very realistic especially with 7 billion people on the planet.

    There is a new or newish book out called The Bet. It covers the argument between the biologist who wrote the Population Bomb in the 1960s and an Economist who disagreed with him. The biologist took your stance. The Economist argued that humans were not like other animals and we have markets and will find new or alternative sources for our energy/consumption needs. The bet centered on whether the prices of certain key metals would raise or drop in a decade. The economist won in 1980. He died but the biologist is still alive and unrepentant.

    The author of the book theorizes that this bet helped poison the rhetoric and is trapping us between two extremes. The loudest voices tend to be the doomsayers who think we are destined to head to a dystopian society and nothing can stop it. Or the more conservative types who think everything is going to be fine.

    I believe in the existence of climate change but cannot step up and be a doom and gloomer.So I generally agree with the idea that the debate is polarized and poisoned.

    • There is no one single renewable energy solution that will provide the same energy output in BTUs that we get from fossil fuels. But you can come close with combinations of wind, solar, hydroelectric, geothermal and tidal power. Coupled with energy conservation measures, you can come awful close to the threshold needed to provide energy for the foreseeable future.

      • NewishLawyer

        I’m all for finding alternative energy sources. It is one of things I think government should do in my utopian budget plan that allows involves slashing Defense by about 50 percent.

        I just think the rhetoric on the issue seems to be “everything will turn out fine” or “We are doomed to hell on earth”

        • There’s an even easier way: Put a bounty of one billion dollars out for anyone who can come up with a renewable energy source that can put out the BTU equivalent of a similar amount (in terms of monetary input: in other words, $1 of fuel will provide the same bang for the buck that $1 of gasoline does, let’s say) of fossil fuels. One billion. Tax free. Plus royalties.

          • guthrie

            That’s a pretty silly way of doing things. Given what we know about renewables already, your point isn’t phrased well and is probably impossible. What you actually want is a denser effective storage method, but short of room temp. superconductors or Shipstones, that’s probably not possible either.

    • Stag Party Palin

      I believe in the existence of climate change but cannot step up and be a doom and gloomer.So I generally agree with the idea that the debate is polarized and poisoned.

      False dichotomy. AND, there are plenty of arguments that can be described as polarized and poisoned (abortion, immigration, debt ceiling, etc. etc.) without causing you or me to abandon our premises. In the face of the scientific evidence and known behavioral characteristics of homo sapiens, what exactly do you mean by not being a ‘doom and gloomer’? Personally, I think that we will not disappear as a civilization, but billions will die because of climate change. Call it severe gloom but not complete doom.

      • NewishLawyer

        On what time frame will billions die? Are we talking next year? The year after that? 10 years from now? 20? 30? etc.

        The most brilliant thing about Malthus is that even though he was incorrect, he can never be proven wrong.

        • I could easily see a billion people before 2150, earlier if the Antarctic and Greenland caps splash into the water earlier.

          Here’s the scenario that I think will play out (I’m not a scientist, just someone who’s paid an awful lot of attention to the issue):

          Seas levels are already rising, slowly. They have been for sometime. We’ve adjusted. The glaring example would be The Netherlands, which keeps building higher dikes. That’s a pretty good bellwether of how fast things are moving.

          We saw in Katrina a warning shot. Sandy should have been a wake-up call: higher sea levels means more water for storms to move around, and more warmth in the seas means bigger, faster storms.

          We’ll keep fighting, because it’s incremental at this point. A four foot wall becomes a five foot, then a six foot wall.

          At some point, we’re going to stop fighting, then we have to make a decision. More than half the world’s population lives within fifty miles of a coastline. We can assume the distribution of that population is probably logarithmic, with density increasing directly proportionate to the proximity of water.

          So do we ask people to move, give them incentives, or force them? That’s when the real fight comes because guess what? Many of those folks are rich and powerful (from the Hamptons, to Wall Street, to Marina del Rey, to London, and so on). They are not going to take kindly, even if a million people are drowned in Gujarat or Macau, to being asked to give up their bitching shorefront homes.

          Then there’s the poor…

          • NewishLawyer

            And you pretty much wrote a science-fiction movie plot which makes it very hard to take seriously politically. Everyone on the planet is going to be dead by 2150 and you aren’t even giving a start-event. Or a possible solution. It seems more like a joy in strident rhetoric and leftier-than-thou thought than anything else. Congratulating yourself for being on the side of angels and right (but maybe not, lots can happen in 135 years) than actually trying to find solutions. Actor212 wrote about alternatives and solutions. You are just tut tutting at anyone who disagrees with your timeline as being a tool of the corporate interests, naive, or both.

            • Everyone on the planet is going to be dead by 2150 and you aren’t even giving a start-event.

              Oh, but I did give a starting event: we just give up, essentially.

          • NewishLawyer

            And I realize just now that you are Actor 212 and not Stag Party Palin. This is the kind of thinking though that I don’t think helps the environmental movement.

            • I spoke about alternatives and choices, mostly because I think there’s still time now for those choices to be implemented without catastrophic damage being done.

              But here’s the flipside argument to that “time cushion”: look how long it took the United States to implement even half-hearted healthcare, ham-handedly. Roosevelt, Teddy. He was the first proposer.

              It’s not a stretch to say that millions died unnecessarily waiting for even this, and that millions more will die before someone finally triggers an event that makes enough Americans realize that profiting off the health and sickness of citizens is a bad thing.

          • Gregor Sansa

            I’d put the over/under for a billion climate dead (that is, dead more than 5 years earlier than they would have died otherwise) at around 2070, not 2150. Principally that would be from the health consequences of wars / revolutions / and refugee life. When bread / tortillas / rice costs more than median wages, even though it was fine a few years ago, people get very rowdy.

            Obviously, the variance is huge. We could be some combination of energetic and lucky and keep the dead down to a few million. Or it could go the opposite way, and we could lose several billion by then.

          • guthrie

            It’s not sea level rise that’ll cause most problems, it’s the cumulative damage to the ecosystems; we might well see widespread famines due to climate change leading to many dead in a decade or two. Scuttlebut has it that the civil war in Syria is partly down to running out of water in the countryside meaning more displaced poor people in the cities to end up in trouble. THis can only increase in the future.

    • njorl

      The Economist argued that humans were not like other animals and we have markets and will find new or alternative sources for our energy/consumption needs.

      Unfortunately, markets often indicate dystopia as a preferred solution. The market solution for the Great Depression would have been large numbers of unemployed people starving to death. Wholesale destruction of other peoples’ industrial capacity can be considered as a market solution to our energy needs or our needs to reduce global carbon emissions.

      • Markets thrive on chaos, to be sure. This is partly why they’re lagging indicators of economic activity.

        • DAS

          “Business news” types on the radio are always going on about markets being leading indicators. I suspect that they do not know what they are talking about.

          • The NYSE and S&P both hit historic highs just ahead of the last five major crashes. That’s hardly a leading indicator unless by “leading” they’re defining as “anytime in the next century”

    • giovanni da procida

      The funny (and tragic) thing about the Simon-Ehrlich bet is that over almost any other ten year period, Ehrlich (the biologist) would have won the bet. Also, if more than just five metals had been included in the bet, Simon (the economist) would have lost.

      I’m an oceanographer, so energy generation is a little out of my wheelhouse, but I think the key is diversification. As a society, we need a portfolio of different energy generating strategies, solar, wind, geothermal, biomass (using waste, not plants grown for that purpose), biofuel, and nuclear. Some of those types of energy production are more suitable to some places than others. For exampe, desert areas should focus on solar, not nuclear (which requires water for cooling purposes).

      The problem I have with your classification of a poisoned dialog is your categorization of one pole as “doomsayers who think we are destined to head to a dystopian society and nothing can stop it.” I cannot think of a single scientist who says such a thing. The scientific community for a number of years has been making the following points: 1) This is a problem. 2) It is a very big problem. 3) We need to take action to deal with it. 4) The earlier we take action, the better and cheaper it is going to be. 5) Some of the changes that we are concerned about are going to happen no matter what we do.

      From my perspective as a scientist, this debate has been poisoned largely by one side of the debate: for example, the same folks who fought a decades long battle on behalf of Big Tobacco against claims it causes cancer.

      • Golf claps.

      • DocAmazing

        The other problem with this debate is the underlying assumption that if Las Vegas can’t be visible from Saturn 24/7/365 or if people can’t drive SUVs two blocks to the Seven-Eleven, then The Terrorists Have Won. There are many ways of decreasing power consumtion that have a small but noticable effect on lifestyle; they aren’t “returning to the Shire”, just behaving a little more responsibly. Unfortunately, the current dialogue won’t allow for serious discussions of that.

        • Helmut Monotreme

          Look how many businesses don’t allow flex time or telecommuting. Flex time can let employees work when they personally are most productive and can keep them off the roads at rush hour. Telecommuting lets them stay at home completely for some of the time, thereby reducing all of the costs associated with commuting. But many businesses are locked into a pre-modern mindset that values inertia over cost saving innovation.

      • NewishLawyer

        According to the NPR Planet Money story on the Bet, Ehrlich got himself a vasectomy because he thought human population needed to go down, very down, and wanted to set an example.

        No one should be forced to have children against their will but neither should anyone be told that they are not allowed to have children because of some form of policy. Stuff like the China one-child policy should be anthema to anyone who considers themselves a member of the left.

        The vasectomy by example seems rather close to crankdom to me. What should be the the total human population? How do you keep/maintain this level without resulting to totalitarianism?

        And I enjoy being equated with Big Tobacco and the Koch Brothers for not taking the science fiction fantasy scenario at full-face value.

        • giovanni da procida

          If you enjoy being placed in the company of Big Tobacco and Koch brothers, then I guess things have worked out nicely. If, on the other hand, you actually are offended, please know that was in no way my intent to associate them with you.

          I simply disagree with your characterization of a dialogue between a conservative pole of people saying things will be fine and “doomsayers who think we are destined to head to a dystopian society”. From my perspective as a scientist, this is nonsense.

          I don’t see a problem with Ehrlich vasectomizing himself and advocating for others to do so. I know several senior scientists who feel the same way. I have a major problem with China’s one-child policy. From my perspective, the key difference is individual choice. Perhaps you have a different view?

          Debating the policy and societal responses to climate change is what we should be doing. Acting like the debate about the science is between “apocalyptic doomsayers” and “conservatives” is facile.

        • Stag Party Palin

          And I enjoy being equated with Big Tobacco and the Koch Brothers for not taking the science fiction fantasy scenario at full-face value.

          If you describe an overwhelming scientific consensus as science fiction and the probable (not inevitable but getting there) predictions as a fantasy scenario, you certainly sound like the Koch Brothers and Big Tobacco.

          • NewishLawyer

            Show me a peer-reviewed paper that predicts billions dead by 2150 because of climate change and resulting famines, draughts, and resource wars.

            • Gregor Sansa

              Show me a peer-reviewed paper that puts any upper bounds whatsoever on the total dead from climate change at any time scale beyond a decade. That’s just not how science works, at least on this planet. You can certainly make a credible argument on either side of this question, but it’s not going to start with “show me a peer-reviewed…”

              • Theobald Smith

                …pretty sure that’s exactly how science works, actually.

                But, hey, if you want to keep making unfalsifiable claims go right ahead.

                • Gregor Sansa

                  Science works by frequent cautious extensions of existing knowledge, and occasional radical paradigm shifts when existing theories are repeatedly failing. Making wild predictions about social outcomes decades into the future fits in neither category.

                  And my original claim above was very much falsifiable: “Show me a peer-reviewed paper that puts any upper bounds whatsoever on the total dead from climate change at any time scale beyond a decade.”

            • Stag Party Palin

              Man, would I like to play poker with you.

  • KY Blue

    I don’t need any oceanfront property but wood IS a crop. Up here in Humboldt County CA we grow trees for lumber and have use slash and mill waste to generate about a third of our electricity. As for what’s going on in the rest of the country, I refer you to Wood for Bioenergy by Mendell and Lang.

    I know you’re a Duck, but the next time you’re back in Oregon, drive over to Corvallis and visit with the folks at the College of Forestry for an update on what’s going on in the forest products industry.

  • Rob in CT

    And if anyone believes the idea that trees are a crop and thus will be replanted for future use, especially on private land, please contact me about the oceanfront property I have to offer you in western Nebraska. The regulatory regime on reforestation, especially in the South is basically zero.

    This appears to have been an overstatement.

  • K

    Nuclear energy is the future. We are advancing nuclear tech everyday. Already it kicks the shit out of coal in terms of lives lost. Coal is dangerous to mine, and hazardous to the environment when burned in large quantities. How many people died mining coal this year? I bet its more than nuclear power plants have killed in this decade.

    • Malaclypse

      Now, boys, you won’t see this operation performed very often and there’s a reason for that… You see it has absolutely no medical value. No one knows what the purpose of it originally was or if it had a purpose at all. Personally I think it was a pure artistic creation from the beginning.

      • Gregor Sansa

        Gross lives lost is, indeed, a useless comparison. But lives lost per gigawatt-hour makes sense. And nuclear does bead coal, easily, on that metric.

        Doesn’t mean nuclear doesn’t need to improve. Doesn’t mean that there’s a chance in hell that nuclear will show the explosive growth that we need from the non-coal options in the next 20 years. But yes. However bad you think nuclear is, coal is worse, and there’s a fair chance you’re using coal right now.

  • K

    And about the fears of deforestation from biomass? Well the area i live in was clear cut during the late 1800s for timbers for copper mines. It grows back fast. Now there are trees fifty feet tall, as far as the eye can see. The only evidence of the clear cutting is the absence of trees older than 50 years. Now we exercise select cutting, and the amount of sawdust a typical sawmill produces could power a house for weeks off one days sawdust. At the smalltime mill i worked at, you could find snow in august buried in sawdust.

    • Malaclypse

      The face of “evil” is always the face of total need. A dope fiend is a man in total need of dope. Beyond a certain frequency need knows absolutely no limit or control. In the words of total need: “Wouldn’t you?” Yes you would. You would lie, cheat, inform on your friends, steal, do anything to satisfy total need. Because you would be in a state of total sickness, total possession, and not in a position to act in any other way. Dope fiends are sick people who cannot act other than they do. A rabid dog cannot choose but bite.

      • But if a man’s efficiency is not guided and regulated by a moral sense, then the more efficient he is the worse he is, the more dangerous to the body politic. Courage, intellect, all the masterful qualities, serve but to make a man more evil if they are merely used for that man’s own advancement, with brutal indifference to the rights of others. It speaks ill for the community if the community worships these qualities and treats their possessors as heroes regardless of whether the qualities are used rightly or wrongly.

  • e.a.f.

    well this time when the south is destroyed they won’t be able to blame it on the north. they did it to themselves. short term gain for long term pain.

  • Albrecht

    I think “biomass” is a terribly conceived category. It lumps together so many different things. In the case discussed we are talking about wood, obviously a limited resource (although here in the US we could save a lot of it by moving away from cheaply nailed together wood frame houses…). Biomass is also a large fraction of household trash and other waste. There are some logistical problems and maybe an “industry” is not the proper institution to take advantage of this source, but it can be used to produce significant amounts of methane (through anaerobic fermentation or pyrolysis) which can be used like natural gas, in fact it can be piped right into the existing gas distribution systems without any disadvantage to the users.
    Side effect: If you leave this waste in landfills it will generate methane too, only the methane will then go and make global warming even worse. So using compostable waste to produce gas is a double winner.

  • Anonymous

    Loomis thinks every energy source except human muscle or animal power is “terrible”. I’m not even sure he’s in favor of the latter, actually.

  • Jame

    Logging in the Atchafalaya. Good gawd. This is the worst news to come out of Louisiana in a while.

  • jkay

    Uranium IS recyclable using breeder reactors, as pointed out upthread. And safish Thorium’s an alternative to Plutonium. Safe and cheap pebble bed reactors were invented by South AfrIca and used there and China.

    A trash->gasoline true recyclable process is improving and IMHO what’l be used, gradually, as oil gets SLOWLY more expensive, in jumps. ALong with biodieel.

  • afeman

    Please tell me there’s a company called Drax Industries. Please please please

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