Sustainability is the Key to Long-Term Energy Security

Why We Love Trees

I don’t often talk about my job, but I am going to today just a bit. I am the Chief Technology Officer for a renewable energy company. Our primary goal is to develop affordable and sustainable energy for a world that we believe will struggle from the impacts of oil depletion. My company favors forestry as a cornerstone of our biomass to energy platform. On a recent business trip, I heard a story that perfectly explained the reason that we believe trees offer a source of sustainable biomass for energy production.

Unlike many crops that strip-mine the soil of nutrients, a properly managed tree crop can actually improve the quality of the soil, while providing biomass that almost exclusively originated from the CO2 in the atmosphere.

One of my metrics for sustainability is to presume that we are using a plot of land to produce an energy crop, and then ask about the quality of the soil after 500 years in that specific service. With many of the crops that are staples today, that soil would probably be quite poor as nutrients are stripped from the soil. Those nutrients have to be added back, very often with large inputs of fossil fuels. That is unsustainable.

I was on a business trip with stops in the Midwest and on the East Coast. I had been asked if I could give a talk on resource depletion at the University of Guelph, outside of Toronto. The conference was called Our Environmental Future, and hosted several speakers who spoke mainly on the themes of resource depletion and sustainability. Normally I don’t travel specifically to do talks (and normally don’t do talks very often anyway), but I was going to be in the area so it wasn’t a problem for me to stop by and deliver a talk.

Besides me, the other speakers were Professor Peter Victor, author of “Managing Without Growth“, Professor Jennifer Sumner, author of “Sustainability and the Civil Commons“, Professor Evan Fraser, author of “Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations“, and Mike Nickerson, author of “Life, Money and Illusion.”

I don’t intend to cover the conference itself in this essay. It was covered in several media stories, including Experts say the future is in our hands – plan or pay the price, Energy expert tells Guelph audience ‘the easy oil is gone’, and Outside the Box Thinking Needed. At some future point I may go into a bit more detail about my talk (some of the news stories got some of the finer points wrong), but not in this essay.

My talk followed that of Evan Fraser, and he was a tough act to follow. He gave a superb presentation on civilizations that collapsed because of various agricultural practices that ultimately resulted in the collapse of food production. His subject matter was really interesting, but beyond that he was a captivating speaker. I thought that he was the kind of person you would love to have as a professor, because he could hold your attention.

The Photosynthesis Experiment

But it was a story that Mike Nickerson told that really resonated with me. In 1652, Dutch chemist Jan Baptist van Helmont conducted the following experiment. He took 200 pounds of oven-dried soil and put it into a vessel. He then watered the soil and put in a willow shoot weighing 5 pounds. After 5 years, the willow shoot had grown to just over 169 pounds. The vessel had never received any nutrients; only water was added during those five years. He then dried and weighed the soil again, and the 200 pounds of soil had only lost two ounces of weight. The vast majority of the 164 pound weight gain was from the CO2 that had been converted into biomass via photosynthesis. (You can hear the story of the van Helmont experiment at Most of Life is a Gas.)

And thus you have the reason that my company utilizes sustainable forestry as a core part of our platform. Our philosophy is to use purpose-grown trees (tree farming) and forestry waste to produce energy. Unlike many crops, certain trees don’t pull a lot of nutrients from the ground and concentrate them in the biomass. They will pull up some subsoil nutrients that end up in the leaves, and then the leaves fall and add the subsoil nutrients to the topsoil. So unlike many crops that can strip-mine the soil of nutrients, a properly managed tree crop can actually improve the quality of the soil, while providing biomass that almost exclusively originated from the CO2 in the atmosphere.

You can read more about what my company is working on in an interview that I did with Katie Fehrenbacher. I have written in a bit more detail about the role forestry plays in our operations in Don’t Weep for the Trees.