History of local energy system should inform biomass debate

Posted: Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The ongoing biomass discussion could lead to wise decisions and practices within a sustainability approach if we understand all the component parts, understand how these parts fit together, and plan for the long-term, with history as a guide.

We should learn from the history of our local hydropower system. Gold mining was the impetus for our first hydropower projects. As our community grew, the federal Snettisham project tapped into Long Lake. Not being on a grid meant that excess energy potential became spilled water, not contributing to payment of the power project debt or income for the local utility. We therefore provided price incentives for converting hot water and space heating from fuel oil to electricity, without adequate thermal codes. This resulted in fully using Long Lake energy many years earlier than originally planned, and an inefficient residential, business and government energy infrastructure in Juneau.

Development of Crater Lake and Dorothy Lake years later became necessary earlier because of these infrastructure inefficiencies. Some of us on the city's energy committee advocated use of integrated resource planning (IRP), which has been a national trend and also considered by the legislature as a proposed statewide mandate.

We also advocated a life cycle cost (LCC) approach. IRP balances the cost of investments in energy production with investments in improved energy efficiency, with the goal of implementing the least cost plan. LCC is a method of planning that minimizes annual expenditures, which often entails higher initial development investment, but overall lowest yearly cost. We failed both in Juneau and statewide to mandate IRP, but after a four-year process developing an energy component for Juneau's Comprehensive Plan, we managed to include LCC planning, though this has not proven to be a mandate.

Juneau would be better able to sustain a high quality of life and local economy if we had a long-term strategy to establish incentives to invest in energy efficient buildings and other energy efficient end uses, rather than direct all investments to energy production. The Juneau Commission on Sustainability, which subsumed our energy advisory committee, is well positioned to change this direction, including with respect to the current biomass issue. Biomass has a proper, perhaps small role as a transition fuel to a future in which we invest in improved energy efficiency and make better use of our abundant and less destructive hydropower resources, wind, solar and possibly tidal energy.

There are many components of the biomass issue, including improving our regional energy system, protecting old-growth forest habitat, improving second growth forest habitat, protecting and creating sustainable subsistence harvests and jobs, protecting intrinsic values and quality of life, doing our part to address climate issues, etc.

What do we usually mean by "biomass energy?" It is sunlight captured and stored by plants using atmospheric carbon dioxide and water, cycling this energy and carbon within a timeframe of decades or a few centuries, not adding overall to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. When done wisely, this also means using local resources, harvested renewably while caring for our local environment. Fossil fuel is part of this same carbon cycle, but the timeframe is tens of millions of years, tied to the uncertainties of the global economy, and threatening to cause overwhelming problems for human society by causing climate change.

Most biomass under consideration in our region is wood from our temperate rainforest, which is a unique environment. After a blowdown or clear-cutting, trees often grow dense and spindly, limiting movement of wildlife, lowering the quality of timber, with the canopy closing over in about 25 years, killing off forest floor vegetation.

Since 1982, I have owned 2½ acres of land that was logged in 1976. Until about 1995, it was impossible to move through the dense vegetation and slash. When the canopy closed, my land became a dark and spooky underworld of dying blueberry and Sitka alders. As I've experienced on my own land, thinning second growth can restore healthy habitat and higher quality timber. If biomass for our region is used for energy, it should be limited to this type of thinning, and only if it is conducted within a broad sustainability plan that includes all aspects of our energy system.

• Bob Woolf is a biologist, science teacher and former longtime member of the city Energy Advisory Committee beginning the early 1980s. He worked as a state of Alaska licensed energy auditor in Juneau and he developed a home energy efficiency course that was taught statewide.

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