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The debate about burning dead trees to produce biomass energy



This story originally appeared on Yale Environment 360 and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Jonathan Kusel owns three pickups and a 45-foot truck to transport wood chips containers. He runs a wood chip farm and 35-kilowatt biomass plant that burns dead trees, and he heads a crew that marks trees for lumberjacks who work in national forests. These are many testimonials for a doctoral sociologist from UC Berkeley, who is known for his documentation of how the decline of the timber industry affects rural communities.

What drove Kusel into a side business – cutting down small and dead trees and burning them in biomass boilers ̵

1; is the fear of fire. In 2007, the 65,000-acre Moonlight Fire burned embers on his lawn near Taylorsville, California as he prepared his family for the evacuation. Last September, the Walker Fire scorched 54,614 acres in the valley from the offices of the Sierra Institute for Community and Environment, the non-profit research organization Kusel founded in 1993. During this 12 year period, wildfires in the northern Sierra burned 690 square miles in Nevada.

Drought, a warming climate and bark beetle infestation have also killed 147 million California trees since 2013, most of them along the Sierra spine, south of Kusel’s home base past Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park to Tehachapi Pass, 75 miles north of Los, runs through Angeles. Scientists say these trees could burn in California’s next round of megafires and threaten the range with flames so strong that some places are unable to create new forests.

The 63-year-old Kusel is among a growing number of citizens and officials who are keen to use these trees and their dense undergrowth before lighting large-scale forest fires, polluting the air with suffocating smoke and releasing large amounts of CO2nd. His institute has invested in logging equipment to supply wood chips for municipal biomass plants that burn them to generate heat and electricity. This is a low-value vegetation that would have been burned in natural fires a century ago before the US Forest Service began to suppress fire.

In addition to the thinning of trees in crowded forests, according to Kusel, biomass projects are helping to rebuild rural communities by creating jobs while preventing the massive carbon emissions that are released in forest fires. The moonlight fire alone spit out the annual CO2nd that corresponds to 750,000 gasoline-powered cars.

“If we can’t figure out what to do with the lowest value material, we can’t restore our forests,” says Kusel.

Biomass projects like Kusel’s are controversial, particularly in the southeastern United States, where states are hurrying to convert forests into pellets for export to power plants in Europe. This market opened after a much criticized decision by the European Union to classify biomass energy as a form of renewable energy.

With production almost doubling in facilities from Virginia to Florida, large-scale deforestation has a major impact on the ecosystems of southern forests, which are among the most diverse in the country. More than 35 million acres of natural forests have been lost, replaced by 40 million acres of single-cultural pine plantations. The extinction of local species has doubled between 2002 and 2011, according to the Dogwood Alliance, an environmental organization that protects the southern forests. The American Lung Association and numerous health organizations blame biomass burning for a variety of health problems, from asthma to cancer to heart attacks.

However, Kusel and others claim that the fire-prone ecosystems in the West are fundamentally changing the use of biomass. Kusel’s projects use dead, sick, and burned trees, as well as small-diameter green trees that he says overcrowded forests and added to the risk of fire. However, where Kusel sees benefits for the ecosystem, jobs, and cleaner air, some conservationists see an overlap that destroys wildlife, removes carbon-storing trees, and releases more carbon through combustion. “It’s a double hit for the climate,” says Shaye Wolf, director of climate science at the Center for Biodiversity.


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