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Monday, January 31, 2011

Great Designs in Wood (1) - The Penn State Forest Resources Building

I'll make it a habit to post great designs in wood as I come across them. The first is a series of case studies produced and shared by the Hardwood Council. Check out these beautiful designs featuring maple, ash, walnut, red and white oak, including the cherry woodwork and maple glulam beams here at our Penn State School of Forest Resources.





Species Matters!

Well, I'm in bad shape on firewood. Just one and a half cords left, out of my original six, and we're not even to Groundhog Day! Past two years I only used one cord a month, so I figured six cords this year would get it.

Now before you go and blame Global Warming for this unusually cold winter we're having, there may be another reason why I'm going through wood faster this year.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Natural and Unnatural Constraints on the Forest Resource

If you read my opening post on this topic, you'll recall that Pennsylvania has more wood in its forest now than at any time in the last 100 or more years, despite its "heavy use". And that the US Forest Service projects that the forest volume could increase by as much as 50% more by the year 2050.

Now if you're really old, say a hundred and twenty, you can remember when much of Pennsylvania was cut over and looked like this scene of Oil City, PA in 1910.



As the cities of the country grew and settlements expanded, most of the wood that was growing out there was needed to meet the apparently insatiable appetite for wood that these growing communities required. But the expansion itself, caused in no small part by the development of raw material markets such as oil, contained the seeds of a decreasing demand for wood. The scarcity of wood itself and the resulting higher prices for it caused opportunistic Americans to seek cheaper alternatives, and as these industries grew, the voracious consumption of wood began to decline. This trend, which I call a natural (or market) constraint on the harvesting of the forest resource, has continued on to this day.

And all the while consumption of wood was declining (our commenter Jonathan gave us a good analysis of this phenomenon), the forest rebounded strongly on the strength of the vitality of our temperate climate and rich soils. For most of the last century, the rise in productivity of the lumber and paper industries kept pace with the growth of the forest. But gradually, and especially in the post WWII decades, much of this American industry began to move to other countries, and the demand for our timber began to fall further behind its use.

The reason these wood industries moved on, simply put, is the free market nature of our economic system. U.S. companies were free to seek cheaper feedstock for their plants, and eventually, it became cheaper to move the plants to other countries than to bring the feedstock to the plant. The reasons our timber became more expensive than other countries are many and could be the subject of a book, but suffice here to say that we have some of the most expensive timber in the world, even though the demand for it is lagging further and further behind the growth (in many parts of the country, the growth rate of the forest is three times or more than the harvest of it.)

These reasons are mostly related to government regulation and confiscation, which I call unnatural constraints on the harvest of our forest. (Others, however, would call these natural social constraints...I agree that they are natural, in a socialist society.) These unnatural or socialist constraints, in combination with the natural, capitalistic constraints of the free market, have created a condition that I believe is a national disgrace...the poor stewardship of our forests, which limits the harvest of our natural forests to high-grading for lumber that leaves an inferior, denser, less robust forest in its wake, and often leads to the huge wildfires we have been experiencing since this trend began.

Now government in its wisdom is creating an unnatural demand for a resource that is unnaturally constrained, in biomass feedstock subsidies and energy taxes in the form of carbon credits deriving from their desire to attain artificial policy objectives. These actions will increase the price of fossil fuels coal, natural gas, and oil, which in turn will increase the price of the very feedstock they are trying to promote, since timber harvesting costs are greatly impacted by gasoline and diesel prices.

Naturally, then, the success of the "incentive" programs will be limited. Taxpayers will help build large, wide-area, high production facilities that would not be economically viable unless they are subsidized, and eventually, when the subsidies are eliminated, the facilities will no longer be profitable and will be closed by the companies...and the stated objective of transitioning to alternative energy sources will become a dream dearly lost.

Unless, we take the road less traveled, and promote small, local, efficient biomass projects.



Darn, I started the GoWood blog to keep it light and enjoyable. Failed miserably in this post. I'll switch gears for a while. :-)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Is Wood Really Competitive as an Energy Source?

The answer to that question depends, ironically, in what sense the reader understands the word "competitive."

If you tend to think of these things in technical, engineering terms, and your context is power generation, then you would probably see wood as a less dense source of energy than coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear power, and wood-based power generation to be less efficient than power generation from those other fuels. This would lead you to conclude that wood is not, from an engineering standpoint, at least, competitive with those other fuel sources. And in the case of power production, at least, you would be correct.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

As mentioned in the last post, we have more wood in our forests today, except with local exceptions, than any time in the last one hundred or more years? How could this be, when Smokey the Bear and groups like Save America's Forests and Friends of the Earth have been warning us for decades that our forestland is dangerously close to extinction?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Energy From Wood

One of the issues that most of my professional time is spent on is the societal energy potential of wood. I've written technical notes on the wood energy potential within Pennsylvania, wood pellets, and co-firing coal power plants with wood. However, one issue I don't address in these technical notes is whether using wood for energy is a "good thing."