wood-wasteClean coal efforts — ranging from carbon sequestration to microbial scrubbing processes — have gotten a lot of attention (from groups on both sides of the issue), causing many to overlook newer operations adopting waste wood as a low-emission, renewable source of electricity.

At the front of the trend, the Snowflake White Mountain Power Plant in Arizona burns dead pine trees from nearby Sitgreaves National Forest where trees are felled regularly to control wildfires and reduce the amount of fuel used by helicopters, trucks and other fire-response vehicles. The plant is also capable of recycling leftovers like twigs and “woody waste” like sawdust produced by sawmills.

Based in Tacoma, Wash., the Simpson Tacoma Kraft Company is the largest timber producer in the state, also known for making high-end wooden doors. Today, it is burning waste generated in-house to create power for 38,000 homes in Sacramento. The waste, which includes sawdust bark, wood scraps and some recyclable garbage, comes from Simpson’s Tideflats mill, with the energy being transmitted 700 miles to California.

Of course, these wood methods don’t come without their share of controversy. Scot Quaranda of the forest protection group the Dogwood Alliance, warns that they will lead to “more large-scale clear cutting… and more endangered forests being logged.” This seems like a reasonable concern — if burning wood becomes common practice, it seems likely that some companies would want to open up new logging zones under the banner of “green power.”

But according to the Biomass Power Association, this isn’t a real threat, as current laws are sufficient to protect national forests. If and when new logging is conducted, it will probably take place on private tree farms, the trade organization says (unsurprisingly).

The irony here is that power companies may soon be growing vast acreages of carbon-sequestering trees only to clear-cut them, burn them (releasing some — albeit less — carbon dioxide particulates into the atmosphere) and replant them all in the name of sustainable energy. Let’s hope, for the time being, that they stick to the waste products.

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