Billions of dollars in tax credits for alternative energy were included in the federal stimulus package. Some of the money is going to encourage Americans to do something man has done for centuries: burn wood.
Plans for electricity-generating "biomass" plants are in the works around the country — and they're under attack from critics who worry that burning more wood may not be as environmentally friendly as other kinds of alternative energy.
In many cases, biomass means just plain old wood chips and sawdust, something sawmill workers call "hog fuel."
At the Simpson lumber mill in Shelton, Wash., they produce great mounds of it, 40 feet high.
Sawmills have long burned hog fuel to help dry out green lumber, but now the government wants them to start generating electricity with it, too. Simpson has responded with plans for a bigger furnace and higher-pressure boiler; the steam will generate power that the lumber company can sell to utility companies.
"It seems logical that if the country wants green power — and it's said that it does — that we try to extract the most value from those little pounds of biomass and make electricity as well as heat," Simpson General Manager Douglas Reed says.
The plant means more electricity — but it also means more burning wood. Right now, Simpson doesn't use all its hog fuel. Much of it is trucked off, sometimes sold as "beauty bark" for gardens, sometimes dumped in landfills. With the new furnace, they'll burn it all, and bring in more from elsewhere.
It's also going to cost the taxpayer. The federal government will cover up to 30 percent of the construction costs of these new power plants, if companies break ground by the end of this year.
That deadline has set off a small gold rush. Dozens of new biomass plants are in the works around the country, with two of them in Shelton. In this one small lumber town, the government may spend more than $100 million subsidizing biomass.
Local resident Linda Helms is shocked by the cost. "We have to borrow that money; that's why we're in debt!" she says. Helms says it's making her reassess her support for last year's stimulus package.
"I'm not a Tea Partyist, but I'm a realist. I want common sense," Helms says.
Opposition to the plants is growing in Shelton. Activists have protested outside a county commission meeting and they've been sharing information with similar groups in Massachusetts and Florida, where proposed biomass plants are also generating controversy.
The second biomass plant being planned for Shelton is a project of ADAGE, a joint venture between Duke Energy and the French nuclear power company AREVA. The plant will cost around $250 million, which means up to $75 million from the U.S. government. But spokesman Tom DePonty says Adage isn't in it for the government money. He points out that the joint venture was formed five months before the stimulus bill was signed. He'd rather talk about the project's green motivations.
"What we're really doing here is taking material that's currently being unused and putting it to good use," says DePonty. The Adage plant will burn "slash," the branches and other debris left behind by logging. It will burn a ton of slash a minute, nonstop. Which raises another point of contention: the impact on climate change.
Deponty says the biomass plant will help to reduce greenhouse gases.
"This is all part of the natural carbon cycle," he says. "The carbon is going to be released from that wood whether it's decaying in the forest, or whether it's burned in controlled slash piles as a forest management technique, or just the trees dying and decaying themselves."
Scientists say that's true, in theory. But in practice, maybe not.
"I think it could go either way," says Steve Hamburg, a forest ecologist and chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. Hamburg has done the "carbon math" for biomass energy, and he says these plants may reduce greenhouse gases — but only if the fuel really is waste wood, harvested in a sustainable way.
On the other hand, if too many new biomass plants start competing for waste wood, they may end up burning wood that would otherwise be used for construction or paper. That would definitely increase net greenhouse gases, Hamburg says.
Even if the biomass is harvested in a sustainable fashion, Hamburg says, the climate benefit would be delayed. The biomass furnaces release greenhouse gases right away, but it takes years for new trees to grow and reabsorb the same amount of carbon.