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Entrepreneurship: The Fuel Of The Future Is Not Wood

Lest you be impressed with oil’s potential energy, remember that it requires more and more coaxing to get it out of the ground and into power. Wood, on the other hand, is literally lying all over the place. That’s the economic conclusion arrived at by an Arizona entrepreneur whose new company is looking to use “green waste” like yard clippings and forest detritus to create energy for over a quarter of a million homes in the Southwest. If this could work, wouldn’t someone have thought of it already? Is this man an idiot?

Lest you be impressed with oil’s potential energy, remember that it requires more and more coaxing to get it out of the ground and into power. Wood, on the other hand, is literally lying all over the place.

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That’s the economic conclusion arrived at by an Arizona entrepreneur whose new company is looking to use “green waste” like yard clippings and forest detritus to create energy for over a quarter of a million homes in the Southwest. If this could work, wouldn’t someone have thought of it already? Is this man an idiot?

The answers to those questions: No, and… Maybe.

Robert Worsely’s plan for his new company, called Renergy, is to combine Arizona’s wildfire problem with humanity’s energy problem. He’s looking to capture the detritus culled from thinning forests for fire prevention and combine it with domestic green waste, as well as paper slop from an area newspaper factory, to make bio-fuel. He claims that all the particulate that we see as black smoke when we burn wood in, say, our fireplaces, will be removed, and that only carbon dioxide will be released in the burning process. That means no greenhouse gases, and no harmful byproducts. Very enviro-friendly sounding.

In concept, the idea seems like a clever reinvention of the waste-to-energy strategy that environmentalists have been pushing for years. The twist here is to purposely produce the waste (that is, by thinning forests) and combine it with some other stuff before burning it to create electricity. This seems cool — less expensive and more reliable than solar, less deleterious to the earth than petroleum, and more realistic than nuclear power (which, if used exclusively worldwide, would eliminate the earth’s supply of reactor fuel in a few generations). So what’s the problem?

“Thinning forests” could quickly turn into a euphemism for logging, and as anyone who has watched a tree grow can tell you, logging can be very difficult to do sustainably. How often could any given forest possibly need to be “thinned” to be safe? Once a year? Twice a year? At what point does forest-thinning become forest destruction? Isn’t the point to save the forest from a devastating fire — or is that a cover for the actual agenda of saving suburban homes?

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As it turns out, I am not the first person to think of this; the Chairman of the Grand Canyon trust comments: “There’s a balancing act… It is critical that the tail of (industry) doesn’t wag the forest-management dog. Finding the sweet spot is something we and others are working on.” Frankly, the idea of a private sector energy company playing nice with environmentalists sounds dubious at best; if my Magic Eight Ball contained a prediction about big business bullying, it’d bubble up right about now.

Take a look at this paper written by a Professor of Agricultural Economics at Texas A&M University on the competitiveness of biofuel plants. Barring government subsidies, it states, the competitiveness of such plants depend “in a key way upon the success of research in developing improved production methods for short rotation woody crops.” In other words, the whole concept is (environmentally) worthless if we can’t figure out a way to make biomass a quickly-renewing resource. My concern is that forest detritus doesn’t renew fast enough for the pace of business. What happens when the plant wants to scale up production? Does it start trucking in detritus from the other end of the state? Does it transport wood chips from Texas? California? At some point, the effort to scale up (i.e., the energy expended in transporting wood waste) inflicts the same environmental damage that the plant was initially intended to eschew, and Arizona is left with just another polluting power plant. And hey, if they need the power, then great — get it from wood. But if they don’t, this shouldn’t be billed as an eco-improvement in electricity production, but rather, just another for-profit powerplant.

Speaking of for-profit: Worsely’s track record is pretty good in that respect; he’s the founder of SkyMall, the airline-based catalog ordering company that sells things you will never need (but might just buy for someone you don’t know that well.) If he brings the same principles he demonstrated with SkyMall to Renergy, don’t count on getting a good deal — the man may not be an environmental genius, but he clearly has a knack for making a buck.

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About the author

I've written about innovation, design, and technology for Fast Company since 2007. I was the co-founding editor of FastCoLabs.

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