Open Letter to Dr. Steven Chu

Dear Dr. Chu: Please accept my fervent congratulations on your nomination as Energy Secretary in the Obama administration. It is an understatement to say I don’t envy you the job. To radically reshape the energy regime of the last 100+ years, even today, will take decades. And, as you have often observed, we have only a few decades to get it right, before the climate impacts of the existing regime lead to incalculable worldwide damage.

Sorry, I don’t mean to accentuate the negative. In fact, I’m sending a gift to celebrate your nomination and encourage your success. It’s a remarkable and hopeful booklet by Dr. Thomas M. Bonnicksen published in 2007 by The Forest Foundation. And, it’s quite short. You can probably finish it during some of the slower speeches at the Inauguration.

Dr. Bonnicksen is a veteran forestry expert and proponent of Restoration Forestry. Like those most experienced in forestry, he recognizes that the historically unnatural density of America’s forests is the root cause of catastrophic wildfires. Losses from the 2008 wildfire season in California are still being tallied, but will certainly top any previous year. Nationwide, between 2000-2005, over 29 million acres have burned at an annual cost of nearly $1 billion. Forest density is also behind the bark beetle infestation that has killed millions of trees in the last few years, and is expected to leave an additional 21 million acres of dead trees across the Western states waiting to burn.

Perhaps the most tragic result of forest overgrowth is the crowding out of wildlife habitats. Overly dense forests block sunlight and rain that once reached the forest floor, drastically reducing the diverse, open habitats, and beautiful meadows, that songbirds, rabbits, deer and other animals need to survive. Catastrophic crown fires not only kill more wildlife, but also scorch the soil, leading to rain-driven erosion that buries fish spawning grounds and chokes entire watersheds with run-off. Restoration Forestry is a scientific program of tree harvesting that can return America’s forests to a historically natural and sustainable state of health, and mitigate the environmental and societal losses associated with catastrophic wildfires.

At this point, you’re no doubt wondering why wise forest management practices should matter to the Secretary of Energy. For an explanation, I want to refer you to another study. This one, also released in 2007, was produced for the UN by an international scientific body, the InterAgency Council, and co-authored by none other than yourself. It’s called, “Lighting the Way to a Sustainable Energy Future,” and is as sober and scholarly a prescription for change in energy policy as I have seen. Significantly, your report separates potential renewable energy supply into two categories: Non-biomass and Biomass. In the introduction to the Biomass section, the report states:

Because biomass is a renewable resource that can achieve low or near zero carbon emissions (provided appropriate conversion technologies are used and feedstocks are sustainably managed), expanded reliance on biomass in modern applications is widely viewed as playing an important role in the transition to more sustainable energy systems.” (Chu, Goldemberg, et. al., 2007)

It is impressive that you and your colleagues chose to emphasize biomass as a

source of renewable energy supply. Impressive because, until recently, biomass and biofuels have been the under-appreciated, and underfunded, step-children of the emerging renewables industry. The reason, in large part, is an image problem: biomass feedstocks – wood waste, agricultural residues, municipal solid waste, landfill gas – are mostly waste products, the detritus of consuming cultures. For an audience seeking contrast with ‘dirty’ carbon fuels like oil and coal, it is hard for biomass to compete, on the evening news, with the purity of sunlight and wind as a source of ‘clean’ power.

Yet, as your report notes, the energy potential of biomass is tremendous, and there are several technologies, some commercial and others in development, that can speed its deployment. Most attention these days is on the production of biofuels as a replacement for petroleum-based liquid fuels. The success of Brazil in meeting nearly 40 percent of its passenger vehicle fuel needs with sugarcane ethanol is a testament to this opportunity. Sugarcane ethanol has a positive net energy balance of eight to one, and a near-zero present carbon-mitigation cost. Experimentation is underway to improve the efficiency of conversion processes dramatically using lignin-based (woody or fibrous) feedstocks instead of sugar or starch-based feedstocks like sugarcane or corn. Breakthroughs in this area are likely to lead to bio-engineered energy crops that improve feedstock yield and mitigate environmental impacts, also to a decline in the costs of biomass energy recovery of up to two-thirds within 20 years.

Modern uses of biomass…offer a far greater array of possibilities for reducing dependence on fossil fuels, curbing greenhouse gas emissions, and promoting sustainable economic development…Ultimately, the most promising biomass applications of all are likely to involve integrated systems where…biomass is used as both fuel and feedstock in the coproduction of liquid transportation fuels and electricity. “ (Chu, Goldemberg, et. al., 2007)

Dr. Chu, I expect you know all this, and I apologize for taking so long to make my point. The truth is that by many tons, wood waste, forest and urban, is this country’s largest single source of biomass energy. With your leadership at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, you know also that conversion science and technology efforts are past demonstration, into first-generation projects. A pathway built on near-term gasification and long-term microbial conversion promises to tap a bountiful resource of energy and liquid fuels available here at home.

The potential benefits are many. We have mills, but logging is stagnant. What if we introduce next generation harvesting technology, can we revive an American industry? Can we put jobs into rural communities? Can we create sustainable forests and protect them? Can we build modular gasification units on site at landfills, lumber mills, at dairy farms? Can we produce power more cleanly than ever before? Advanced gas turbines now produce practically no NOx emissions at all – isn’t that the generational change we need in our power generation? It’s exciting to ask the questions; it would be better still to get some answers.

Again, Dr. Chu, my sincerest congratulations. The renewables community is cheering for you.

Joseph Kleinman is President of Skyhorse Media Inc, a research and marketing firm in Los Angeles serving environmental and alternative energy companies. Clients have included Energy Conversion Devices in Rochester, Michigan, and FlexEnergy, Inc., in Mission Viejo, CA, a developer of advanced biomass energy technology. Contact him at jkleinman@mindspring.com

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