Author Archives: trevorud

The Big Picture: The Impact Our Relationship to Energy Will Have in the Future

Many scholars and economists around the world have come to a simple conclusion; as global climate change threatens our planet and our way of life, human activity regarding energy development and consumption will play a crucial role in the solution (or lack thereof). Tom Dietz, professor of Sociology and Environmental Policy at the Michigan State University, speaks to the fact that a solution to this problem will be anthropomorphic, as is the very problem we aim to solve.[1] Specifically, Mr. Dietz analyzes the behavioral changes that would be necessary for humans to make in order to enact significant change and improvement for our climate.  He observes what incentives will compel different groups to change their consumption patterns, and even goes as far as to measure how these changes are reflected, or ignored, in our political system.

Mr. Dietz, like David Victor, professor at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at UC San Diego, has come to some alarming conclusions. In measuring how humans change behavior based on their understanding of the negative impacts that climate change will have on their lives, he has found that their willingness to change is generally as expansive as their willingness to save money. In other words, behavioral change regarding climate change is not a top priority for most, even those who understand the negatives impacts that their emissions and consumption have on the planet.  Similarly, Victor describes the gridlock in international politics surrounding the climate change issue. Gridlock in the United Nations has become status quo, as many nations set goals that they cannot achieve or that do not amount to meaningful CO2 reductions in the first place. Mr. Victor eloquently describes how international negotiations have failed to look at this issue with the complexity that it deserves, and that a unanimous agreement for worldwide CO2 reduction at the levels necessary to significantly stem the damages from climate change is unlikely to ever emerge from this body.[2]

Climate change is a result of many human activities, while CO2 emissions receive the lions share of publicity, other contributing factors should be taken into account. Mr. Victor points to the fact that the political barriers to making headway on CO2 reductions and other major contributing factors to climate change could be mitigated if governments were to establish precedence for successful regulation first. He gives the example of how many countries could lower ash pollutants from power plants without great difficulty, thus solidifying political support for climate initiatives as well as demonstrating immediate benefits to these actions (reductions in ash contamination can result in better air quality in the short term).  Sound policy on the nation state level, as well as bilateral agreements between large polluters (US and China) could have major impacts on CO2 reduction, regardless of whether international CO2 standards have been established.

Whether people will change their behavior depends on several factors; research into how providing better information to consumers will help them curb energy consumption is getting attention. I am working on a project to observe changes in lower income households as they use energy-monitoring units to monitor their consumption. Whether this information will help consumers lower their consumption to a point that will benefit the environment, or at all, remains to be seen. Nevertheless, this research helps scientists observe the relationship that man has with energy – a relationship that will define our future, and may help bridge the gap between those who believe that technology is an end all be all solution to our problem and those who do not see any solution to our current state of affairs.

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Wood Pellets

I say wood pellets, you say Sweden. Wood pellets, ok you get the idea. Despite the fact that graphs showing primary energy resources over the last several centuries unanimously show wood in severe decline as whale oil and coal take the market share, and then later oil and nuclear, wood cannot be ignored as a potential clean energy resource.  Wood pellets used for fuel are easy to manufacture and use wood leftover from other industry for their production. Furthermore, while major consumption of wood pellets is generally confined to developed nations, the potential to bring wood pellet plants to developing countries is great – wood pellet plants require minimal capital investment and are very simple to maintain. Granted, wood pellets may not suffice as an energy source worthy of fueling the lion’s share of China’s industrial growth or the glittering lights of its megacities, however, this resource could benefit billions of people. With advances in the science of pellet production, opportunities to provide mobile plants to remote areas with fledgling infrastructure are becoming more realistic, potentially giving some the chance to turn on lights in their houses for the first time. However, for the purposes of this blog, we will look at how the pellet industry exists today. Moreover, using Sweden as a best practice, other countries have lots to learn form this Nordic country.

Wood pellets are made from wood waste, such as sawdust. Compressed by applying high pressure, the final product is a hard cylindrical pellet, which has a strong constitution resulting from the wood’s lignin and resin, which act as natural binding agents.[1] Before pressing the pellets, the raw material is processed to be uniform in consistency and then dried to remove the moisture. Once dried and ready, the raw material is passed through a press that produces thousands of identical pellets.[1] The machinery needed for this process is very simple and can be shipped easily from country to country. Some mobile plants are no bigger than a tractor trailer, allowing so that production can be stationed near the source of the needed raw materials. Think medieval resource meets modern distributed generation.

Feedstock availability is the central determinant for what type and size of plant is developed onsite. Because of the bulk and weight of the resource, long-distance transportation of the material is not economically feasible.[2]  The drying process can also become complicated at times, as large dryers can be expensive and weather conditions unpredictable.[2] The optimal level of moisture for pelletizing wood is 12% and if the biomass arrives to the plant with high levels of moisture the drying process can be energy intensive. Research to streamline and economize this process has improved the industry’s economic margin, yet many plants take on significant risk because of high moisture content in their raw material. Plant operators have found that using waste wood to fuel drum dryers is more economical than the traditional natural gas dryers, however in the US, as the cost of natural gas has gone down over the past several years, American wood pellet plants are more inclined to use natural gas drum dryers.  Plant design and machinery varies from place to place, dependent on the environment and access to biomass resources.  Further variations in plant design apply to the milling, grinding, and conditioning processes.  Like coal, pellets are easy to store and distribute.  Once they have cooled they are durable and resistant to nature’s forces. Pellets can be transported in bulk by train or truck and many times transportation networks are modeled after that of the livestock feed industry (especially in the US). [3]

The use of wood pellets for energy has also been targeted as a way for countries to lower their carbon footprint.[4] Because wood pellets are made from biomass, the release of CO2 when burned does not result in a net gain of carbon dioxide emissions. As many countries continue to try and meet emissions reductions targets set by the Kyoto Protocol, carbon neutral energy options such as wood pellets are increasingly desirable.

Sweden graph [2]

Sweden has emerged as the primary producer and consumer of wood pellets in the world. Winters are long and cold in Sweden and heating homes can be a costly affair.  A report titled, “Densified Biomass fuels in Sweden; Country report for the EU/INDEBIF project,” states that Sweden has had success with biomass fuels because of three factors; “a good availability of wood material, a taxing system that discriminates against the use of fossil fuels, and well extended heating systems.”[4]

Beyond the benefits of reduced carbon emissions, and central to the future of this energy source, is the fact that wood pellets have proven to be a stabilizing force for economies commonly dependent of foreign fossil fuels. The simplicity of the technology and the general abundance of the raw material in countries that today depend heavily on other nations for their fuel source, both combine to make wood pellets a viable and real option for residential and even industrial use. However, currently, because most developing countries do not have a sufficient wood pellet infrastructure for domestic use, they have entered the playing field as exporters of the manufactured pellets. The sale of manufactured goods like wood pellets help build industry in these countries.  For example, Argentina’s economy has long depended on the export of primary goods, specifically agricultural goods.  However, as the country continues to make efforts to grow its industrial production and therefore to increase marginal benefits from exports as well as the demand for labor at home, the manufacturing of wood pellets provides the complete package.  With demand in Europe incrementing steadily, Argentina is looking for opportunities to build its wood pellet manufacturing industry. [5]

global pellet[2]

Back to Sweden and domestic consumption of wood pellets. The ability for wood pellets to provide an economical option to consumers in Sweden has proven beneficial for the economy at large, as well as for the environment. In Sweden, wood pellets have now become cheaper than coal as a fuel source, after all costs have been incorporated.[3] Moreover, the average Swedish wood pellet furnace lasts for 28 years and retrofits for old oil burning furnaces are easily performed. This cost/benefit analysis is increasingly focused towards developing nations, especially in Asia.[1]

As a region, Asia is home to more than 30% of the world’s biomass resources. [1]China already consumes significant amounts of biomass energy, but often in archaic and inefficient ways. As recommended by the IEA (International Energy Agency), China should attempt to leapfrog from old uses of biomass to modern pellet production through consistent and well-defined public policy, promoting capital investment in efficient pellet production plants, as well as organized and efficient connections between biomass resource origin and production capacity. The thought of leapfrogging from inefficient use of biomass to wood pellet production is exciting for all of the reasons mentioned above.

Across the board, as countries attempt to find more stable sources of energy, more efficient uses of existing resources, and more environmentally sound energy production practices, the appeal of wood pellet production is strong. Not only does the process use renewable resources, these resources are often burned as waste, regardless. Using these resources more efficiently by converting them to clean burning wood pellets gives many countries good reason to invest in wood pellet production and consumption infrastructure. When in doubt, just look at Sweden and how far they have come in the last 20 years.

 

[1] Global Wood Pellets Markets and Industry; Policy drivers, market status, and raw material potential. N.p.: IEA Bioenergy Task 40, 2007. Accessed March 2, 2013. http://www.bioenergytrade.org/downloads/t40-global-wood-pellet-market-study_final.pdf.

[2] Hirsmark, Jakob. “Densified Biomass Fuels in Sweden: Country report for the EU/INDEBIF project.” Doctoral thesis, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, 2002.

[3] Pirraglia et al. “Wood Pellets Feasibility.” Bio Resources 5, no. 4 (2010): 2374-90.

 

[4] Hagberg, Linus, Erik Sarnhom, Jenny Gode, Tomas Ekvall, and Tomas Rydberg. LCA calculations of Swedish wood production chains – according to the Renewable Energy Directive. Report no. B1873. N.p.: Swedish Environmental Research Institute, 2009.

[5] Braier, Gustavo. Estudio de Mercado del sector forestal y forest-idustrial de Argentina. Report no. 33.199. Contratacion de un estudio de mercado de sector industrial, foresto-industria y su difusion para Argentina y Uruguay. N.p.: ProChile, 2002.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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