The heft and feel of a well-worn handle,
The sight of shavings that curl from a blade;
The logs in the wood pile, the sentiment of huge beams in an old-fashioned house;
The smell of fresh cut timber and the pungent fragrance of burning leaves;
The crackle of kindling and the hiss of burning logs.
Abundant to all the needs of man, how poor the world would be
Without wood.

Everard Hinrichs, quoted by Eric Sloane in A Reverence for Wood


Friday, June 29, 2012

Oil: The Next Revolution

We ended the last post with an admission by the government of Denmark that their plan for the elimination of fossil fuels in their country by 2050 may not be perfect because of the fact that there are many "unknowns". We could fill shelves of books with all the unknowns that could make their energy strategy sub-optimal by the year 2050, but let's just touch on one current event that is being ignored with all the other big political stories in the news recently.

We are on the brink of a revolution in the oil of a tremendous increase in oil production in the next decade that could last for a century, or more. The title of this post is taken from a report of the same name authored and released this month by Mr. Leonardo Maugeri, an Italian oil executive and fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. The report, as its implications are slowly grasped by the governments of the world, will hopefully result in a sea change in the way that global energy policy is currently formulated. Here is a short video with Mr. Maugeri explaining the bottom line on his findings.

Among his conclusions...

  • Oil is not in short supply. From a purely physical point of view, there are huge volumes of conventional and unconventional oils still to be developed, with no “peak-oil” in sight.
  • The age of “cheap oil” is probably behind us, but it is still uncertain what the future level of oil prices might be. Technology may turn today’s expensive oil into tomorrow’s cheap oil.
  • The shale/tight oil boom in the United States is not a temporary bubble, but the most important revolution in the oil sector in decades.
  • At the same time, the Western Hemisphere could return to a pre-World war II status of oil self-sufficiency, and the United States could dramatically reduce its oil import needs.

His findings will come as a surprise to most people who have heard for decades now that we were approaching, or have passed, "peak oil"; that is, sooner than later the world's oil production would begin to decrease and in the face of increasing demand, the cost of that oil will skyrocket. Instead, as was explained in a previous post by the late Dr. Jude Wanniski, we are discovering that the earth is, in fact, a ball of energy that we are just beginning to learn to harvest. True to Dr. Wanniski's prescience, higher energy prices are driving innovation in fossil fuel exploration and recovery, and the results are staggering.
"Forget ‘peak oil.’ Or so they say. It has fracked its way to energy self-sufficiency… there are roughly 20 major shale oil plays in the US. The largest five of these new reservoirs have more than 20 billion barrels of recoverable oil… meaning that each of these new fields is not only the largest in US history (by a wide margin), but that each of them, individually, would more than double the proven reserves of domestic oil… That is why America is on track to be the world’s leading producer of oil within the next five or six years… and why the most knowledgeable oil analysts are predicting a new all-time high of American oil production by 2017. In fact, we’ve already become a net energy exporter for the first time since 1949. 
-Bill Bonner, The Daily Reckoning: A Valley in Peaks...and the Biggest Fraud in Economics 
So, regardless of government policies to drive up the price of fossil fuels so that "green" fuels could be more competitive, more oil than ever before is being found and will soon be making its way to global markets. In fact, the higher prices that were meant to benefit the development of renewable energy resulted in record profits for oil companies, and to technical breakthroughs that in fact, are about to make oil more abundant than ever.

The bright side of the story is that advances in renewable technologies have in fact taken place. Less competitive technologies (think Solyndra) are being driven from the marketplace, and the most competitive renewable energies have been improved and are finding their market niches, such as biomass energy in the thermal heat sector. So I found the report of Mr. Maugeri exciting and a breath of fresh air for the struggling global economy. More abundant energy, in all its forms, will get a lot of things moving and will restore folks' confidence in our ability to survive another few centuries.

So, even if the Danes and other small countries like them continue in their desire to be free of fossil fuels, that's fine. They'll presumably be happy with their expensive wind power; Canadians, Scandinavians, and Northeasterners will be happy with our wood heat; Spaniards and Californians will be happy with their solar power; and everybody will be happy with abundant oil, coal, and natural gas.

One big happy family. At least, that's the plan.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Perfect Plan, a Certain Illusion

Funny thing, different perspectives. 
Ran across this headline in the February issue of Biomass Power and Thermal magazine...
"A Perfect Plan
The Danish Government has launched an ambitious renewable energy strategy that will convert its energy and transport system by 2050. Ambitious, in this case, means 100 percent.
For the coming decade, the strategy contains a range of concrete initiatives projected to lead to 36 percent renewable energy use by 2020, according to Ture Falbe-Hansen, head of media relations for the Danish Energy Agency. Milestone dates have been set for the years 2020, 2030 and 2035. By 2050, Denmark will be mostly fossil fuel free...
What does this plan mean for biomass? According to Falbe-Hansen, coal covers about 40 percent of Danish electricity production and nearly 20 percent of district heating production. Coal consumption will be reduced by 65 percent by 2020, he says. “The proposals will replace coal with biomass and initiatives to promote wind power.”
The Danish energy plan will stop any new buildings from using oil or gas-fired installations by 2013, with some exceptions, and also stop installation of oil-fired boilers in existing buildings by 2015. It will also provide funding for partnerships on strategic energy planning in municipalities for better use of resources like biomass.
So we have the perfect plan for our conversion to be a fossil-fuel free country, right? Isn't that what any open-minded reader of BP & T would conclude?

Well, maybe not, according to author Robert Bryce. In his convincing recent best seller, "Power Hungry: The Myths of 'Green' Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future", Mr. Bryce's Chapter 10 is entitled "Myth: Denmark Provides an Energy Model for the United States."
"America's leading energy cheerleaders love to cite Denmark as the model to be copied...[but]
The basic problem with Denmark's wind power sector is the same as it is everywhere: It must be backed up by conventional sources of generation. For Denmark, that means using coal as well as hydropower resources of its neighbors. As much as two-thirds of Denmark's total wind power production is exported to its neighbors in Germany, Sweden, and Norway...much of it at below market prices...
...the Danes are providing an electricity subsidy to their neighbors...In September 2009, the Danish Center for Political Studies...[declared] that this "exported wind power, paid for by Danish householders, brings material benefits in the form of cheap electricity and delayed investment in new generation equipment for consumers in Sweden and Norway but nothing for Danish consumers."
...None of this is aimed at belittling Denmark. The country has had remarkable success at keeping energy demand down...But let's be clear: that near-zero growth in energy consumption has been achieved in part by imposing exhorbitant energy taxes and by maintaining near-zero growth in population.
Thanks to their government's exorbitant tax rates, the Danes pay some of the highest electricity rates in the world. In 2006, the Energy Information Administration looked at residential electricity rates in sixty-five countries and found that Denmark's rates were the highest by far, amounting to some $0.32 per kilowatt-hour...about 25 percent higher than the electricity costs in the Netherlands, which had the next highest rates at $0.25 per kilowatt-hour...
While Danish homeowners are getting spanked by expensive electricity, Danish motorists are getting absolutely mugged at the service station...According to German Technical Cooperation (GTZ), an agency of the German government, only a handful of countries have more expensive fuel than Denmark, a list that includes Italy, Norway, Turkey, and Germany."
So while Denmark has a model for fossil-fuel reduction and theoretically, elimination, that model could find a few challenges in a country as energy-rich as America.

Different circumstances, different people, different objectives, different model. What's "perfect" in one place is probably not so in another. Even the BT&P article admits that the Danish "2011 energy report noted that the exact optimum energy system for 2050 is uncertain, as there are too many unknowns."

Such as...? More on that tomorrow.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Gimme that Old-Time Forestry

My friend Harry Wiant sent me the link to this movie with the note that it changed his life at 12 and set him on his career path as a forester. Pretty influential movie, since Harry went on to become one of the most influential foresters in the United States during second half of the 20th century. In forestry school I learned to cruise timber with a prism and a Wiant Wedge, and in my senior year I placed second in pole classification and fourth in timber cruising in the Southern Forestry Conclave using these tools.

So, I was curious to watch the movie that started young "Sonny" on his way. It's about an hour and a half long, so you may want to save it for weekend viewing. I was really interested in the first five minutes of the movie, in which they show some great shots of old fire towers, an old mill, and how the Forest Service used to use visual triangulation to locate forest fires, before the GPS was invented.

Interesting to watch Fred McMurray star as a forest ranger before he had his Three Sons. Even more interesting to see the respect with which the character of a forest ranger was treated back in those days.

Harry also passed along an interesting quote from Teddy Roosevelt, who was speaking before a gathering of national foresters in 1903, which elucidated what they then believed to be the mission of the National Forests...

"...And now, first and foremost you can never forget for a moment what is the object of our forest policy.  That is not preserve the forests because they are beautiful, though that is good in itself, not because they are refuges for the wild creatures of the wilderness, though that too is good in itself: but the primary object of our forest policy, as the land policy of the United States, is the making of prosperous homes.  It is part of the traditional policy of home making in our country.  Every other consideration comes as secondary.  You yourselves have got to keep this practical object before your minds: to remember that a forest which contributes nothing to the wealth, progress or safety of the country is of no interest to the government and should be of little interest to the forester.  Your attention must be directed to the preservation of the forests, not as an end in itself, but as a means of preserving and increasing the prosperity of the nation."
Curious, I went to the Forest Service homepage to see if there are any remnants of that vision left in the official talking points. At the bottom of each press release is a mission statement...
"The mission of the U.S. Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation's forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. Recreational activities on our lands contribute $14.5 billion annually to the U.S. economy. The agency manages 193 million acres of public land, provides assistance to state and private landowners, and maintains the largest forestry research organization in the world."
And this from the current Chief of the Forest Service, Mr. Tom Tidwell.
"We are dedicated to restore and enhance landscapes, protect and enhance water resources, develop climate change resiliency and help create jobs that will sustain communities."
Hmmm...different views, that's for sure. Well, mission creep infects every organization over time.

Harry was also (in)famous for his different views. One of his most prescient was written in 1993 after attending the annual convention of the Society of American Foresters, and it even mentions his feelings towards "Ecosystem Management"...
"Either there are a lot of people a whole lot smarter than I am...or my 30-year old PhD in silviculture is completely outmoded. Honestly, I don't grasp "ecosystem management," and all those who seem to understand do an awfully poor job of explaining how it will work. All this led me to the following revelation (I hope this isn't sacrilegious).
In the latter days an anti-wise use force will arise and will deceive many. It will reign for one generation. Mills will be closed, prices will rise, and once-productive forests will be filled with dead and dying trees. The sound of the saw and the axe will be heard no more. The woods will be the habitation of agitators, negotiators, and commentators. But this too shall pass. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. The people will cry, "Why are we wasting this renewable resource? We cannot afford homes as our fathers before us, and lowly paper is beyond our means. Ecosystem management is a false god which none can comprehend. It is used by those destroying our means of production." And a new generation of foresters will come forth, once again guided by science-based reason and the knowledge that the stand has always been the basic silvicultural unit, and timber the most important product of the forest. It will be understood that man cannot live by bread and shelter alone, but he surely can't live without them.
At that time, the 150-year old SAF will: 1) be greatly favored by all for having stood firm for wise-use conservation, while other organizations were led astray by the sirens of feel-good forestry; or 2) be assigned to the ash-heap of history for having led people into a false forestry, full of words but devoid of meaing. Which will it be?"
- Harry V. Wiant, 1993

Thanks for a dose of that old-time forestry, Harry. The rest of you, have a great weekend and enjoy the movie.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Sign of the Times - Pallet Art

Walking across campus a couple of months ago, I noticed something that caused me to do a double-take. There, right behind the Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State, was a statuesque artistic work made from...pallets!

Now, when one encounters a new piece of lawn art in high-profile public places, they're usually large, metal or granite, and indistinguishable from something in the back corner of a scrap yard. And obviously expensive.

But as I gazed on this work of beauty, it kind of grew on me, in an ugly-duckling sort of way.  After all, it was made of wood, and it was weirdly included a giant checkers table with chairs that would comfortably seat (and support!) the largest sumo wrestler.

I walked around this thing several times, trying to get the sense of it and to get into the mind of the artist(s). Ok, I have pallets, and I'm an architecture student that is dating an art student, and we both have a term project due next week. And I like to sit outside, drink beer, and play checkers. Put it all together, and voila!

In these days of "austerity", maybe pallet art will catch on. Imagine, art in the parks that will actually shelter homeless people, and amuse them at the same time. And even if they burn it in the winter to stay warm, there are always plenty of pallets where those came from.

Pallet art. Another value-added wood product is born. Sell this to the municipal city planners, it'll fetch a couple hundred thousand, at least.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Wood Science 101(5) - Soft hardwood, hard softwood, and vice versa

Softwood is soft...hardwood is hard. Right?

No, not really. This is by far the most common misconception non-woodites have about wood when they browse the aisles at the Big Box. And you have to ask "Well, why do they call them that, anyway?"

The most likely reason has to do with logging back in the old days. Farmers clearing their land in the east back in the 18th and 19th centuries would have encountered a great range of deciduous trees, scientifically categorized as angiosperms, those that have broad leaves, true flowers, have their seeds enclosed in a fruit, and shed their leaves in the fall (they are deciduous). The soil of the northeastern part of North America was typically thick and rich in the valleys, because of the ancient age of the Appalachian mountains and the temperate climate that inhibited frequent and large wildfires. The result was a widely ranging deciduous forest, and the varied species that made them up consisted of a large percentage of oak, hickory, and maple. The oaks and hickories were spread far and wide by animals that loved the mast (nuts) produced by them, and recycled them periodically in their ramblings.

Seed cases, or samaras, of Norway Maple (Acer platanoides).
Maples, on the other hand, are prodigious self-seeders; their seeds are encompassed in a light fruit sack that has wings which take the seeds on a flight of the wind's fancy.  They also are powerful stump sprouters, and reproduce themselves easily even when the farmers cut them down for timber or firewood. So, maple trees are everywhere in the Northeast, and provide it with lots of syrup in the early spring and color in the fall.

Now, the folks that were out there clearing all these oak, hickories, and maples with axes and two-man saws, and shaping them for utensils with draw knives, found them pretty tough customers. The oaks and hickories, in particular, are heavy woods, going from 60 to 70 pounds per cubic foot (960 to 1120 kilograms per cubic meter). And the folks down south, who were harvesting live oaks for ship timbers and bows, really had a oak is the heaviest hardwood in North America, running well over seventy pounds per cubic foot (1120 kg/m3) when green.

Ahhhh...cottonwood cool.
Apparently, these "heavy" species (technically, the ones with the highest "density") left enough of an impression on these early pioneers that they generally thought of these deciduous angiosperms as "hard" wood, even though other species, such as cottonwood, aspen, American elm, and American chestnut, which were common back in those days, were quite a bit lighter. The aptly named cottonwood weighs less than 60 pounds per cubic foot (960 kg/m3) when green, and whittles easily with a dull pocket knife, as I found out a long time ago. For this reason, cottonwood has always been one of my favorite trees...its leaves fan the air on hot Texas summer days when there is no air, and thereby help perpetuate the state of mind of a twelve-year-old boy that "it ain't so hot out here..."

Now, those old-timers generally didn't talk about different woods like scientists. They didn't have time or mental energy to waste thinking about the relative variability of wood properties expressed in different angiosperms at different moisture contents or growth rates. They just knew that the deciduous trees really wore out their saws and axes, and their they got in the habit of calling them "hardwoods".

Yes, white pines (Pinus strobus) get big.
As opposed to the gymnosperms, which are those cone-bearing (coniferous) trees that have needles and retain them in the winter; that is, they stay green when the other trees drop their leaves. Most of the coniferous trees in the Northeast are fairly light species; the famous Eastern white pine, which was the favorite of the King's navy back in colonial days for its straight, light, yet strong wood, and made perfect masts for their ships, is slightly lighter than cottonwood at about 50-55 pounds per cubic foot (800 – 880 kg/m3) when green. Eastern hemlock (the state tree of Pennsylvania), is just a tad lighter, at 48 -50 pounds per cubic foot (775 – 800 kg/m3), as is Eastern redcedar, at about 45-52 pounds per cubic foot (700 – 830 kg/m3). Naturally, then, when they compared the heaviest Northeastern conifers with hickories or oaks, the conifers seemed light by comparison, and so became "softwoods" in the local vernacular.

But as we spread out into the rest of the country, our common man's classification system started to break down. As we harvested the Lake States to build Chicago, Milwaukee, and Detroit, we found that aspen was a pretty "soft" hardwood. And early settlers out west found abundant red alder, a light-weight hardwood that has somewhat the look, weight, and feel of Western redcedar.

But the folks harvesting the southern U.S. were really confused, because not only did they find the super-light "hardwood" species basswood and cottonwood, but they found some of the continent's heaviest softwood, of which four species, longleaf, slash, shortleaf, and loblolly, are now marketed under the unifying moniker of Southern Yellow Pine. Southern pine not only has a relatively high density when dry (try driving a nail into a southern pine stud with ten or more growth rings per inch, and you'll bend a few nails) but it also has a resinous "pine tar" that served navies well in the wooden ship days (naval stores were buckets of pine tar and turpentine that were used to caulk seams and cracks in hulls, and seal wood from moisture), and this pine tar, or "pitch" retained moisture in the stem and added even more weight to the wood. Resultantly, old southern pine trees could yield pitch-filled logs that could weigh as much as the lighter oaks even though the specific gravity, the weight of a wood species relative to the weight of water, is quite a bit lower than those tough old oaks and hickories.

Microscopic view of southern pine. Koch, P. 1972a. Utilization of the southern pines. I. The raw material. USDA Forest Service Agricultural Handbook No. 420. 733 pp. 
As you can see in the above picture of southern pine cell structure, softwoods are comprised of long, thin tubular cells, and it is these that carry the water through the stem of the tree. It is this uniformity, in addition to the density of the wood, which makes softwoods seem relatively soft when being sawn or machined.

On the other hand, the moisture is transported in hardwoods through larger diameter pores, or vessels. These come in different shapes, sizes, and locations in the different hardwood species, and this variation contributes to the woodworker's sense that certain hardwoods are rough, or "hard" to machine.

Microscopic view of white oak. 

Nowadays, wood "hardness" is complicated (or, depending on your point of view, simplified) further by hardness standards developed and adopted for wood grading for different products. The most commonly used hardness metric used in the various wood industries is the "Janka-ball" hardness test, which is the amount of pounds-force (lbf) or newtons (N) required to imbed a .444″ (11.28 mm) diameter steel ball into the wood to half the ball’s diameter, as specifed in ASTM Standard D143. These standardized results are then used as a relative measure of the hardness of a wood, the results of which are fairly easy to find, such as at this Wikipedia page. If you browse the Janka hardness table, you'll see that the hardest woods are tropical hardwood species, but then below that, softwoods and hardwoods are relatively randomly mixed.

So, now you know the rest of the story...that hardwoods aren't necessarily hard, and softwoods aren't necessarily soft, and why. So next time, don't go wandering into Home Depot and start asking questions that make you look like a wood neophyte; do what I do, and pretend to actually know what you're talking about. :-)

Friday, June 8, 2012

What classifies as local humor in rural Pennsylvania

No wood stuff here, except it is a story about a logger written by his son, the logger. Thought most of you would enjoy a laugh, instead of the grim reaper stuff I've been posting lately. Martin says the story is about 90% true, as best he can remember, and since he and I are about the same age, I'd say that's about as true as memories that old get.


by Martin Melville 

Dad had a fondness for spotted hogs. I’m not really sure why, he just did. I was about ten when, many years ago they moved over the mountain. The small town is only about ten miles from mom’s parents, but real estate cost about half what it did on the other side. It was their first house. The price was right and they liked the quiet setting near the edge of town, so they bought the place with cash dad had saved. Other people were scared of the mountain, especially in winter. But the DOT put more salt, cinders and plow-time on that mountain than they did on the whole rest of the county. It didn’t scare them.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Company Town America - Peering into the Dark

News of an explosion and fire at the Verso Paper mill in Sartell, Minnesota, brings our consciousness back to the plight of the pulp and paper industry and its employees here in the United States. The mill, bought from International Paper back in 2006 as one of four mills to create the new company, had been struggling competitively for some time; the company had laid off 175 workers as recently as late last year in an attempt to remain profitable.

The story of Sartell is another of the long list of company town stories that are not going well these days. The mill was constructed over 100 years ago and has been the town's major employer for all that time. It pays over $1 million a year in property taxes, money which is a major revenue stream for the schools and services in the area. Employees of the mill had been fearing the future of the mill, and the fire pushes that fear to the forefront of their minds.