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Searching for carbon in my backyard

There is no denying it. Call me a caveman or “IMBY-cile” but there is nothing like relaxing in front of a wood-fuelled fireplace or stove. The mind mesmerised into cosy contemplation by the flickering flame complemented by spluttering and cracking as background music, the body soothed and gently massaged by radiant warmth. A feeling of embedded contentment, innate security. Maslow's needs and wants on a dreary winter’s evening.

It is my contribution to global warming and climate change, apparently. It seems that if I’d have used coal, I would have emitted less carbon dioxide per kW heat. Worse still, I’ve increased the risk to my next-door neighbours of contracting some form of respiratory disorder with all the nauseating smoke, particulates and other carcinogenic nasties billowing out from my chimney.

I’ve ravaged the growing carbon stock and am now in carbon debt because I took down a semi-mature birch tree in my backyard (“IMBY”). Technically and legally, part of it may have belonged to my next-door neighbour as it grew on the rather vague boundary between our properties. In my defense, I did get verbal consent for this ”tree-grab”. The tree itself was purposely grown for fuel, a dedicated crop, displacing part of the vegetable patch. This had led to the digging up of the mossy grass-covered lawn, guilty of indirect garden use change (“IGUC”).

As I blatantly disregarded the cascading principle by cutting the tree into small stove-size pieces and had burnt the whole lot for heat, stemwood and all, I could be found guilty of indirect wood use change (“IWUC”). Indeed to some this litany of transgressions and bad behaviour, for the sake of a cosy fire, brands me an Enemy of Earth.

Whilst the sequence of events above is a satirical depiction, they are by and large the kind of issues being bandied out as soon as biomass for energy comes up be it for heat, power or transport, not its other uses. It is frustrating as I’m sure anyone who has participated in any of the major biofuels conferences in recent times will agree. It is a minefield of murky and muddled debate, where at best a hypothetical perfect becomes the enemy of good.

And it will most likely intensify from all sides, opinions, agendas and quarters in the lead up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP21, in Paris at the end of this year. There is a need to zoom-out and clarify the difference between carbon and carbon before getting bogged down. Needless to say that this publication is of the opinion there is an inherent difference between fossil carbon and biogenic carbon and that a robust steering instrument such as a carbon tax on the former is needed.

The Province of Ontario, Canada took it one step further when it banned the use of coal in power generation essentially making it illegal. As a direct consequence, the Province is now at the forefront of utility-scale coal to biomass conversions with Ontario Power Generation (OPG) Atikokan and Thunder Bay generating stations. The former is North America’s first and largest coal to wood pellet conversion. An additional benefit is an investment into new local pellet production to supply Atikokan.

Thunder Bay is the world’s first and largest coal to advanced wood pellet conversion. It has now been commissioned and it seems the theory, that modifications to the existing plant infrastructure require very little CAPEX relative conversion to conventional wood pellet, does indeed hold true. According to figures from OPG, the capital cost of the Thunder Bay conversion was around CA$3 million. This is I’m sure welcome news for all interested in the advanced wood pellet sphere.

Closer to my home so to speak is the new Block 6 waste-to-energy plant in Västerås, Sweden. With a 60 tonne per hour fuel consumption rate the circulating fluidised bed (CFB) boiler is, according to the utility Mälarenergi, one of the largest of its kind in the world. And no, I’ve no problem with it being IMBY.


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