This research may help us swap trees for coal (and prevent forest fires at the same time)

Climate

Forests of dead trees stand throughout the west due to a disastrous bark beetle infection.

As the West examines its dependence on Russia and other unfriendly countries for oil, some are looking to alternative energy sources, including green energy like biomass. Utah engineers have developed a technique to repurpose trees that were killed by bark beetles into biomass fuel. 

Researchers say their approach is akin to killing two birds with one stone: increasing the potential for a carbon-neutral fuel source and clearing out thousands of acres of dead trees that are prime fuel for devastating wildfires that rip through western states each year. 

But the solution is not as simple as burning the dead trees in coal plants because the living cells in the wood gunk up machines that were made to process coal. It’s also more expensive to harvest wood. The National Institute of Food and Agriculture estimates it costs about $10.80/Megawatt hour to deliver wood biomass, compared to about $5.32 for coal.

Chemical engineer Andrew Fry and his research team at Brigham Young University are trying to solve the first challenge. They’ve created a new process to turn dead, decaying trees into a substance that dissolves into powder in the power plants’ machines just like regular coal — a significant improvement to what’s been done in the past, Fry says.

The team burned 900 tons of wood and coal mixture for 24 hours at the PacifiCorp Hunter Power Plant located in Emery County, Utah. A study of their method was published in Energy & Fuel. NewsNation spoke with Fry about whether dead trees can reduce both carbon emissions and wildfires — and what’s stopping mass-adoption. 

NewsNation: How does using biomass offset coal carbon emissions? 

Fry: Let’s take rice for an example. Rice is really important, because it’s part of our food infrastructure. But as we process it, rice husks just get thrown away. Those types of things could be used as a fuel in a similar type of process. 

If we can offset the coal by burning biomass, that helps significantly with the CO2 footprint of the power generating station. Look at the whole lifecycle of biomass as a renewable resource: As it grows, it consumes CO2, and then you burn (CO2) at the end of its life. 

NewsNation: Why can’t biomass completely replace coal? 

Fry: Even with the number of trees that are dead (in the West), it’s not anywhere near enough material to keep these (coal) plants functioning and provide electricity for the demand. 

The amount of energy that we require as a society … you cannot get away from fossil fuels right now. This technology is going to be one useful tool of a large portfolio of things that we have to do to be better stewards of our environment. 

NewsNation: One critique of biomass is that transporting and processing the trees into a coal-like fuel is expensive. What do you think about that?

Fry: Imagine you had to go up on a mountain, and you had a large area that you have to collect wood from. You have to bring it all to one location and process it in some way and then deliver it to the power plant. All of that effort adds cost to the fuel. It’s really hard for those fuels to be cost competitive with coal. That’s really why it hasn’t happened so far. 

But now we have a new driver: the improved health of our forests, to reduce wildland fires and to offset CO2 emission. And so we decide that those are worthwhile to us, and we may decide we would be willing to pay a little bit more. That would help to move these things forward.

NewsNation: Is this technology a better renewable option than solar or wind energy? 

Fry: I think (wind and solar) absolutely should be studied, implemented and included in our portfolio. But to say solar and wind can replace the power generation capacity that we have right now is just crazy. 

One thing that people don’t understand is that we have to produce power at exactly the same rate that it is consumed by the consumer … so that something like in Texas (when the power grid went down during a winter storm in 2021) doesn’t happen. 

As the sun’s going down, that is the peak of our utilization of electricity. When the solar (power) goes away, you have to replace it with something else. And that is going to be the case until we have a method to store (solar energy) on an extremely large scale. 

NewsNation: When you talk about tree biomass, you’ve been focusing on electricity. Could you also create other types of fuel, like gasoline for cars?

Fry: The reason we don’t do these types of things is because gasoline is so cheap, but as the price of oil and availability of oil goes up, other technologies become competitive.

We had a group of students that converted a truck to run on biomass, and we were able to make it replace gas. There’s actually some fuel suppliers out there who are working towards building up their infrastructure to (prepare for) this explosion of biomass. It’s becoming very interesting lately to (utility companies) all over the world. 

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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