Renewable energy

Wood Burns Better: Updated


Update on 1/25: This post should have more clearly credited an article in The Cleveland Scene by Maude L. Campbell. The story is linked below in the text but is well worth reading in full. Other minor corrections have been made in brackets. We regret the oversight.

Midwestern Ents and their forest brethren sequestered a big sigh of relief when an Ohio coal-burning power plant shut its doors at the end of 2010. Why were trees worrying about burning carbon, you might ask? Plans were underway to convert the plant from coal to burning fresh cut wood.  

Someone should have thought to harness the raging fires

FirstEnergy of Shadyside Akron, Ohio, got interested in forest fuel sources after nudges from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO), and the renewable energy act passed in 2008 by Ohio's state legislature. That bill required that 25 percent of state energy be provided from "alternative" sources by 2025 and created resalable credits for those supplying non-fossil fuel power.

After years of ineffective EPA pestering, the Burger plant was on its way to getting shut down. Faced with a choice of closure (cost: 95 jobs), clean coal technology ($300 million plus), or conversion to biomass ($200 million), FirstEnergy decided to give the renewable energy option a try. PUCO never bothered to ask what FirstEnergy would be burning before throwing over half the available credits their way. Naturally, [as The Cleveland Scene explains], the power company decided to go with the most efficient option:

When the Ohio law was written, they were thinking, as many Americans were, that this type of biomass would be generated from waste wood or from annual crops. But what has in fact happened is that the utilities have found that's not the ideal fuel source," [the executive director of the Buckeye Forest Council Cheryl] Johncox says. "The ideal fuel source is wood or wood chips.

The 3 million tons of wood needed to power the plant would have doubled the amount of wood the state currently consumes. Once alerted to the plan, environmentalists got up in arms and filed a bunch of lawsuits. After sinking $15 million into the project, First Energy pulled the plug, claiming the plan was suddenly no longer cost-effective.

Ohio's flirtation with deforestation is a symptom of the wider distortions caused by America's energy independence obsession.The 2008 Farm Bill instituted the Biomass Crop Assistance Program with a modest $25 million. In 2010, Congress decided that wasn't enough and put $552 million into the program. A $45 a ton subsidy for sawdust has flowed to sawmills, driven up lumber prices, and made life far more difficult for composite wood manufacturers.

Asked to remedy the injustices, the Department of Agriculture claims the legislation makes no distinction between biomasses, as they overpay for the wet, heavy crops that provide less energy per weight. 

Read more from Reason on renewable energy here.

NEXT: Being Smart With Your Smartphone, Police Search Edition

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Good thing they didn’t get to burning wood. That shit doesn’t grow on trees.

    1. josh – the first energy plant was to burn wood pellets which is converted waste wood controlled for moisture, weight, etc. however this cost is also climbing as more plants convert.

  2. Zeus is going to get really uppity when he finds out econutss are now in charge of keeping fire from mankind.

    1. Where is Prometheus when we need him?

      1. Word has it he has been relocated, and is helping to feed endangered species.

        1. Hercules was supposed to go get him, but I heard he got drunk and went bull-tipping on Crete instead.

          1. His dad’s gonna be pissed when he hears about that.

  3. alllllllllagha, burger plant, aaaaaaaaaaaaalaghahhh [/]Homer

  4. It’s still illegal to sell wood in any volume other than a cord in many states (including my own) and I think it’s still illegal in Canada.

    Sounds like the same guys wrote this legislation.

    1. “It’s still illegal to sell wood in any volume other than a cord in many states (including my own) and I think it’s still illegal in Canada.”

      Haven’t heard that bit of insanity, and amazingly, CA hasn’t (yet?) signed on.
      Most of the groceries here have boxed, dried hardwood for sale, say enough for a full day’s fire.

      1. It only applies to individuals. No clue how grocers get around it.

    2. It’s still illegal to sell wood in any volume other than a cord in many states

      Um. No.

      It’s not illegal to sell wood in any volume other than a cord. I can go buy one log if I want to. I can buy a truckload, a barrel load, a box load, a tree full, or whatever.

      What you’re thinking of is a law of weights and measures that makes it illegal to use the word “cord” in selling wood or certain wood products, unless you use the standard unit of measure that is defined as a “cord” in the state law. E.g., you can’t say you’re selling a “cord” of wood unless it actually meets the statutory definition of a “cord.”

      But you certainly could sell a “pickup truck full” of wood.

  5. But I thought Chad told us that environmental boondoggles like the corn ethanol program were all things of the past that he doesn’t bear any responsibility for, because now he and our representatives in Congress know the perfect programs and regulations to create.

  6. This shows how foolish renewble fuels is. Wood was an important fuel sorce and wood smoke blaknketed cities while the cutting of wood lead widespread clearcutting elimianting entire forrests in Britian, New England, along the Missippii and elesewhere. Use of whale oil in lampps lead to the near extinction of the sperm whale. It was precisely the fiscal and environmental costs that lead to the development of the coal and oil industries.

  7. Doesn’t Toledo count as a burnable biomass renewable energy source?


    1. “What’s important now is finding out whose fault this is!”

      1. WGN-Chicago just ran that episode. Forgot how great it was.

        1. Just watched a rerun of the Les Bos/300 parody myself.

      2. I have no idea why we get WGN on basic cable in N Carolina. Likely related to them carrying a lot of Chicago based sports teams.

        1. I think just about everyone gets them basic cable. I have had them in houston and denver.

      3. We know who was responsible, and it wasn’t terrorists or global warming. It was…

        Crab People.

        1. Only a crab person would be awake at 1:30am to make this comment.


  9. If the gubmint would legalize weed they could burn all the leftovers. Energy problem solved.

  10. 1st, FirstEnergy is in Akron, OH.
    2nd, public utility commissions have no idea how expensive they’re making energy. If you want to know why your bill keeps going up, don’t blame the power company. The PUC’s are trying to implement the edicts of bad legislation and have no regard for the costs. Then the companies spend hundreds of thousands researching the costs of new programs – go back to the PUC to get recovery on those costs – and eventually your bill goes up.

    This is just a stupid way of managing energy.

    1. there’s alot more involved. most folks support clean air & clean water

      1. most folks support clean air & clean water

        Sure, all things being equal (which is to say, when cost isn’t taken into account), cleaner is better.

        But clean ain’t free. So the only interesting question is, how much should we pay for a given increment of improvement?

    2. Er… you mean mis-managing enery.

      1. Mis-managing is a kind of managing.

    3. Akron: Home of the 2010 NCAA Soccer National Champions.

  11. America has no obsession with energy independence, as evidenced by our ever increasing imports of fuel. We just talk a good game and then throw subsidies as useless favored industries like agriculture.

    1. Damn straight!

    2. Energy Independence is simply a canard and impossibility.

      1st. What is energy? If you’re talking power we are already independent.

      2nd. If you’re talking transportation or petroleum products, who the fuck cares. It’s a global market so it matters not where our imports come from. Unless you just really hate Canadians like I do…

    3. Yes, Ben Wolf, we could be energy independent if only the right people were in charge.

      We can also win in Vietnam Iraq Afghanistan.

  12. Asked to remedy the injustices, the Department of Agriculture claims the legislation makes no distinction between biomasses, as they overpay for the wet, heavy crops that provide less energy per weight.

    Market Failure!

  13. What else burns? More witches!!!

  14. So basically, this is the model for an energy independent America.

  15. Ohio’s flirtation with deforestation is a symptom of the wider distortions caused by America’s energy independence obsession […]

    … which is based on economics illiteracy.

    Autarky – the way how North Korea does business! How about them apples?

  16. Before coal was widely available, charcoal was needed for things like iron production. This caused air pollution and deforestation far more unpleasant than anything you are likely to find anywhere today. Coal is dirty and dangerous, but it is certainly an improvement over charcoal.

    If anything is going to be subsidized (nothing should be in my opinion), it should be the development of cheap, mass produced modular nuclear power generation.

  17. Ohio is the most denuded state in the nation with ZERO acres of virgin timber stands….Why don’t they start burning all the vacant houses, empty farms, shuttered stores, Boehner reelection posters, for fuel?

  18. we tried that. the heat doesnt last. damn union fire dept puts it out too fast

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.