My Turn: Wood is good for Concord

  • The competing “weed” trees in this white pine stand were cut and chipped into biomass, then delivered to Concord Steam to produce heat for city and state buildings. Hunter E. Carbee

For the Monitor
Friday, March 04, 2016
The state of New Hampshire is considering switching infrastructure in Concord state buildings now heated by local renewable wood over to natural gas because natural gas prices are currently the lowest they have been in many years.

Is this the best option? Let’s take a look.

It is true that with the current price of gas being at record lows, any number-crunching bean-counter in a cubicle can make a good argument for switching to gas. But as we are all painfully aware, fossil fuel prices are highly volatile. What will the price of gas be two years from now? Ten years? Twenty?

That aside, there are numerous other issues. Gas is not produced in the New England region, and because we do not have shale gas beneath us, the ability to receive adequate volumes of gas results in long-term high vulnerability, as well as being at risk for meeting full load capacity operations.

ISO-New England is extremely concerned about the entire Northeast’s continuing high dependence on natural gas for energy production. Moreover, with the current crash in global oil prices, domestic shale operations are going out of business. In fact, it is predicted that over 100 exploration and production natural gas operators will declare bankruptcy in the next year.

The only way that this can be avoided is if the price of natural gas rises again. I’d say the writing is on the wall.

Lastly, for every dollar of gas that comes into Concord, a dollar of cash will leave the region. No additional economic opportunity is available. None of the gas is produced locally and worse yet, the parent company that owns and operates the local distribution system in New Hampshire is a Canadian firm. While the cost of gas may be attractive (at least right now), the economic impact to the local city and state economy certainly is not.

Now let’s look at wood.

Biomass is our most available, local, renewable resource. New Hampshire, being the second highest forested state in the nation, has ample resources of low-grade wood. Although I support all sectors of renewable energy, only biomass provides thermal and electrical energy 24 hours a day.

I have often read comments from naive readers worried about clear-cutting our forests just to provide fuel for biomass plants. That is far from the case. The power plants in New Hampshire burn over 1 million tons of biomass each year yet our forests continue to grow more wood than we harvest.

Biomass is the lowest valued product produced by loggers at the highest expense. No landowner in their right mind would clear-cut their land for the pittance that biomass would provide. Instead, the use of low-grade biomass has given professional foresters a fantastic tool to thin forests like a garden, maintaining the healthiest and most vigorous trees to grow. Furthermore, good forestry enhances wildlife habitat.

From a forest health perspective, I have procured insect and disease-infested wood from Bear Brook State Forest and wood salvaged from emerald ash borer. Incinerating infested wood is a critical tool for protecting our local forests.

For years, the State House, the Legislative Office Building and many other state buildings have been heated by wood harvested from our very own Concord town forests, as well as numerous municipal forests from surrounding towns.

The logging and trucking companies that provide wood fuel to Concord Steam are very hard-working folks who have mortgages on their homes and want to send their children to college just like the rest of us. They produce about $1.5 million per year in wood fuel that is sold directly to Concord Steam. This goes directly back into our local economy for purchases of equipment, parts for repair, tires, oil, etc. Some of these companies have a million-dollar payroll, which also is injected into our local economy. This is not taking into account the nearly $3 million in additional cash the steam company puts back into the local economy through its payroll, maintenance, repairs, taxes and other expenses.

Unlike corporate-owned power plants, the steam company is privately owned by two individuals. It is truly a family-run operation. They have worked diligently for nearly a decade on their aspirations of rebuilding Concord Steam to be a more efficient provider of heat and electricity to the city. These folks have put everything they have into this project. Embattled? Maybe. But nothing makes me prouder than to see the vapors coming from under the manhole covers along the streets of our state capital. That’s our wood and that’s our local economy, working together.

(Hunter E. Carbee works for North Country Procurement Inc. and is a licensed forester in charge of wood supply at Concord Steam Corporation.)

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