What to burn, what to burn? Coal, that one-time wonder rock has lost our love, being named environmental enemy No. 1 by Economist magazine in 2002.
As older coal burning plants around the country age, they will need to be replaced or upgraded to handle more capacity and to reduce their environmental impacts. We know coal power is dirty power, but the cost and opposition to nuclear power have delayed new projects, and even renewable power projects like wind farms routinely face opposition. While we dislike coal, we seem much more comfortable with the idea of burning something than we are with alternative technologies. We will have a hard time letting go of coal until we change our perception of alternate technologies or find something better to burn.
Some coal-fired plants are now experimenting with burning wood chips. Results of pilot projects seem promising; energy production has not suffered and wood pulp produces less sulfur and NOx emissions. The idea is a political winner. The long suffering forestry industry in Canada could find a new life as an energy provider. The projects have been touted as carbon neutral (which is a farce, but that’s a discussion for another day). However, burning new plant biomass instead of coal is worth exploring.
But if you like the idea of using wood, you should love this. Garbage! Many of you are appalled. But think about it. We have this vast source of energy that we keep on generating. We have the infrastructure to collect and transport it. We are already investing the energy to do so. And then we bury it!
Meanwhile, we spend lots of money and energy to unbury coal and oil. For many, burning garbage is distasteful. It conjures an image of black smoke pouring out of stacks, but modern incinerators with high-temperature combustion are much more benign. It’s arguably more distasteful to spend energy burying it when it could be used.
And if you turned up your nose at the incinerator, here’s one you’ll really dislike. But give it some thought. We spend a fortune de-inking recycled paper, generating a lot of wastewater that must be treated (requiring still more energy). We still end up with pulp that is marginal for recycling. With few exceptions, recycling content never exceeds 30 per cent. Think about that. You are doing your part, separating and recycling paper. You try to buy responsibly, yet the best you are likely to get is 30 per cent recycled content because the rest cannot be de-inked. We might be better off scrapping paper recycling.
Instead, we might pulp that paper, pelletize it and burn it as fuel. We’d cut down on water pollution from de-inking and virgin pulp that needs far less bleaching. Like using wood pellets, this would be a boon to forestry. And if you liked the idea of using wood instead of coal, should it matter to you that you’ve written on that wood first?
We need to set aside biases and personal taboos and consider if it makes sense to use these other fuel sources. And if you are now thoroughly disgusted with the idea of burning anything, maybe we’ve opened you up to the idea of wind farms and nuclear plants. Either way, it’s progress.
– Sophia Dore is an environmental scientist with Conestoga-Rovers & Associates. Andrew Laursen is an assistant professor at Ryerson University.