Trees, trash and juice

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I really love to eat roasted piñon nuts, they are so good but also hard to collect. However, I learned that if you can find a big packrat nest, it will likely have a nice stash of piñons in it, and all you have to do is pick them up. The rat has done all the work and I could benefit without all the labor – kind of reminds me of something else, but I digress.

The packrat story brings up the saying, “if you mess in your nest, then you lie in it”, and that is exactly what the packrat does. Consequently you want to be very discerning when collecting piñons from a rat nest cache. The rat doesn’t clean out his trash, I end up doing it for him.

We really aren’t much different, we pay for someone else to come pick up our trash and haul it away to the landfill (when I was young they were called dumps and never got filled because they were always burning), and they pay to dump it, so someone on a big tractor gets paid to crush and bury it, so it can decompose into that evil methane gas that someone else must get paid to try to figure out what to do with it. Today, we pay and pay to produce a future problem, or maybe an archaeological gold mine.

So where do the trees fit in? Well, the forest is full of dead and dying trees (trash) that we either leave lying around rotting, waiting for a wildfire to make a LOT of smoke, or pay someone to pile some of it, so we can pay the Forest Service to pay their fire crews to pay for fuel and fire equipment to go burn the pile or do broadcast burns (they call it prescribed fire these days) to make lots of smoke so we can pay the doctors in the emergency room and the pharmacist at the drug store for breathing and allergy treatments and medications. We do get to write letters complaining about air quality, though that is probably not really a beneficial aspect of the smoke problems. We pay and pay for no real value return here either.

So what is my point? We have become a lazy, trashy society that expects someone else to be responsible for the mess we make or allow to be made. The forest is dying, becoming trashy and burning because we won’t manage, use and improve it. Some say we have to save it by leaving it alone – to die and burn? The landfill is filling up because we don’t want to stop wasting almost everything. Our local landfill receives over 24,674 TONS per year, which is 68 tons every day. Our local landfill cup of blessings will be running over in 25-30 years with no place to go, what then? Is there a solution? Yep, flip the switch and turn on the juice!

Problem Solving 101 is turning lemons into lemonade, in this case “juice,” or rather “electricity.” What are the problems to solve?  First, a dying forest full of “trash material.” Second, a landfill site that must greatly reduce waste material within five years. Third, a state mandate to buy 30 percent of our electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

SO, take ALL our problem trash and use it to turn on the juice. No, I’m not crazy, there are around 84 power plants in 23 states whose main fuel source is Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) to produce power. They burn 96,000 tons/DAY and sell 14.5 million megawatt hours to the grid. They all surpass EPA air standards and are mostly privately owned and operated for profit. There are many other power plants that use waste products for producing gases and oils to run the boilers, including methane from old landfills. There are plants that are converting most plastics back into their original oil form for various repurposed oil products and uses.

Municipal Solid Waste and forest product waste are recognized as “renewable” fuel sources for power generation. Emergency management personnel recognize that in our area the greatest disaster would be one that compromised the electric grid to our area for any length of time, and many feel this is a very real possibility. A well-designed power plant to use the trash and forest wastes as fuel would have a multiplicity of benefits such as employment, economic returns, power source for local distribution, emergency stable power source, reducing forest wildfire fuels, and reducing landfill impacts, just to mention a few. Another possibility could be that this would make it feasible to capture the methane from drilling that is now flared off, and feed it into the fuel line for the plant.

The plants that are in operation all subscribe to the multipurpose concept and one concept that could work here could be to use the heat and gases from the boilers to run large vegetative greenhouses. Combustion produces lots of water and CO2, both of which are needed in greenhouse operations. In case you are wondering, this is not a new idea at all, much of Europe and the Far East have been doing similar things for years. The technology has been and is here, so let’s stand up and turn our sour lemon problems and attitudes into some beneficial sweet lemon Juice for our corner of the state.

Dexter Gill is a retired forest manager who worked for private industry, three Western state forestry agencies, and the Navajo Nation forestry department. He writes from Lewis, Colo.

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From Dexter Gill.