A Beneficial Way to Dispose of the Sierra's Lost Trees: Use Them for Energy
Los Angeles Times (March 17, 2017)

When the Forest Service announced its calculation last November that the Sierra Nevada contained 102 million dead trees, it conveyed the immensity of a tragedy that is unprecedented in California’s history. It also challenged planners and innovators to find a beneficial use for at least some of the dead trees. As it turns out, there is one.

The direct cause of the die-off is an infestation of native bark beetles, but the beetle population would not have exploded without California’s five-year drought and a longstanding policy of fire suppression, which has crowded the forests with weak, sunlight-and-moisture-starved trees. More than 500,000 dead trees were removed last year, but the rest stand in place, as straight as birthday candles, which they can rival in flammability. If lightning or a camper’s carelessness causes them to ignite, the result could be one more calamitous conflagration to add to the state’s recent string of them.

This is worrisome for many reasons. Catastrophic fires don’t stimulate regrowth, as lesser fires do: The hotter temperatures they generate scorch the landscape and destroy the seeds needed for plant regeneration. That leads to severe soil erosion, landslides and devastated wildlife. Megafires also blanket large areas of the state with sooty black carbon, which is toxic to humans and a notorious climate pollutant, with a global warming potential 3,200 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

In recent years, a few innovative small companies have developed ways of producing energy from the dead trees in an environmentally sound way.
Even in the absence of fire, dead and dying trees are dangerous. They fall on roads, homes, buildings, transmission lines and people, sometimes with mortal consequences. For this reason Gov. Jerry Brown issued an emergency proclamation in October 2015 to clear the trees from high hazard zones. Stacks of beetle-bored timber are now piled up beside roads and in empty lots and at government facilities.

A better approach would convert the dead trees into energy. In the early 1990s California had as many as 66 large power plants that produced electricity from wood and agricultural waste, but more than half of them closed when government price supports expired. In any case, the technology, which uses combustion, is problematic: Burning tree waste produces substantial greenhouse gas emissions, and transporting the waste to faraway plants adds still more emissions and increases the cost. To meet the dead tree emergency, some plants’ contracts are now being renewed, but the technology’s drawbacks limit its appeal.

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