Debate on Burning Wood for Power

The record-breaking wildfire in Yosemite National Park is almost fully contained, two months after it started. The fire calls attention to a problem across the western U.S.: After a century of having its fires routinely extinguished, the forests are overloaded with fuel, reports NPR.

A heated debate has flared up about what to do with that forest fuel. California is hoping to reduce its fire risk through renewable energy, but some worry about the environmental costs of thinning the forests.

Brett Storey, a program manger for Placer County, thinks there’s a solution. He’s showing [the reporter] around a recycling facility about 10 miles from Lake Tahoe that he hopes will also be home to a biomass power plant by next year.

“Whole towns get heated like this in Scandinavian countries,” he says.

The plant would turn tree branches and scrap into a gas that runs a generator, supplying about 1,500 homes with electricity. It would be fueled by Forest Service projects within 30 miles.

“You can call it thinning, but thinning is really logging,” says Kevin Bundy of the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group. “You have to build roads and skid trails and landings. There can be a fair amount of environmental damage associated with thinning operations.”
Bundy says biomass power plants would only add pressure to cut trees — trees that are storing carbon as they grow.

“When you cut those trees down and burn them for bioenergy, you put all that carbon into the atmosphere, where it warms the climate,” he says.

That carbon will eventually be reabsorbed by new trees, but Bundy says the climate can’t afford even a short-term increase in emissions.

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