Category Archives: Energy

North Country Sustainability Plan

On January 23 we attended the summary presentation of the North Country Regional Sustainability Plan at the Wild Center.  This is an effort out of NYSERDA, modeled after the Regional Economic Council process, to create an overarching plan for improving the economic and environmental health of the State.  Like the broader economic councils, this effort was organized at the level of 10 regions across the State.  The North Country effort was led by Essex County and included Hamilton, Clinton, Franklin, Lewis, St. Lawrence, and Jefferson counties.

The place to start is with that over-used word sustainability.  The key idea is that our communities, economy and Park lands are managed and used in such a way that finite resources are conserved and reused so that they will be available to future generations. This includes finding ways to be more efficient, i.e. using fewer resources, as well as using more renewable resources like the sun. Implicit in this definition is the need to limit green house gas (GHG) emissions which are the root cause of climate change and tied to non-sustainable use of fossil fuels.

But sustainable, especially when applied to our communities and economic systems, also carries the connotation of strong, resilient and self-reliant.  When it feels like many of our Adirondack towns are shrinking, sliding into oblivion and need regular infusions of aid from Government, the economy doesn’t feel very sustainable.  One professor from Paul Smiths, Brett McLeod, suggested we talk about creating durable communities.  We like that and suspect it will go over much better with many North Country residents than sustainable, which unfortunately is also associated in some people’s minds with liberalism, climate change and a plot by the UN to take over all private property.

The sustainability plan, whose development was led by the team of ANCA and the consulting firm Ecology and Environment (E&E), was based on two main pieces of input.  The first was a detailed inventory of current green house gas emissions in our region.  This will serve as a baseline for both prioritizing future efforts and for measuring success at reducing our use of fossil fuels.  The second input came from a fairly large-scale public outreach and stakeholder engagement effort.  We participated in a couple of working group sessions as well as a major input session that brought all seven working groups together in an information sharing day.

The GHG inventory has lots of interesting data and some good news for our efforts to become a greener economy.  Because of the large amount of hydro and wind based generation of electricity, primarily in the St. Lawrence river valley, 94% of the electricity that flows through the power grid is generated from renewable sources.  This doesn’t include the electricity that is generated by small-scale solar, wind or geothermal.  This is a great place to start on a sustainability plan.  Looking at our non-transportation energy use, 30% of the energy is produced by wood for heating, but this only contributes 1% of the GHG emissions.  Meanwhile, fuel oil represents 35% of our energy use but contributes 48% of our GHG emissions.  Similarly natural gas is 30% of energy use and 40% of emissions.  Thus, a major strategy is to substitute biomass heating systems for those based on fuel oil and to some extent natural gas.  At the residential level, there is a lot to be gained by converting the 39% of homes heating with fuel oil to high-efficiency wood burners, and this is a centerpiece of the ADK Futures strategy.

The real problem is in energy use for transportation, which accounts for 40% of our GHG emissions (residential energy use accounts for only 17% of the total) and 42% of per capita energy consumption.  Three quarters of this is for basic cars and trucks on the road.  Farming, forestry, snowmobiles, ATVs and recreational boating account for 21% of transportation-related emissions.  Strategies for reducing emissions due to transportation are much less clear as our large distances in the North Country require a lot of driving.  Long-term efforts to encourage clustering of both businesses and residences in towns can help to promote walking, biking and use of electric carts.  Unfortunately, the data says that in our region, the number of people living in a city or town center went down from 53% in 2000 to 46% in 2010.

The real key will be getting people to use alternatives to single occupant vehicle traffic by building up bus systems and creating support systems for ride sharing. Surprisingly, the study estimated that 18.5% of commuters in the North Country travel via car pool, public transit, biking or walking. Presumably most of this is in the larger towns and cities outside the Blue Line.

In our view, the GHG emissions due to transportation within the Blue Line can only come down significantly when we have affordable electric vehicles that have sufficient range to meet the needs of our dispersed region.  Since our electricity is almost entirely based on renewables, this can be an effective long-term strategy.  Use of biofuels may also be significant if technical breakthroughs increase the efficiency of their production.

The stakeholder input effort was organized into seven working groups with overlapping and inter-related issues:

  • Energy
  • Transportation
  • Livable communities and land use
  • Economic development
  • Materials management (i.e., recycling as much waste as possible in an energy efficient  way)
  • Water management
  • Working landscapes (agriculture, forests, recreation)

The proposals in these groups are very similar to those developed through the ADK Futures process:  encourage more local food and local energy production, cluster development in town centers, use the land productively but in a sustainable manner for farming, forestry and recreation, protect the quality of our water, plan at the larger level of watersheds, use new technologies for water treatment that are energy efficient, and increase reuse and recycling of waste, especially for organic waste through composting and digesters.

The data again has some interesting points.  Energy usage by farms has not been a focus before and there is great potential to make them more efficient as only 1% of farms have ever done an energy audit.  Although our solid waste disposal per person is 22% less than the State average, we are 4x less effective at recovering materials from the waste stream.  DEC currently estimates that a quarter of the water bodies in the North Country are impaired in some way with pollution, invasives, acid rain, etc.  34% of North Country communities are considered “food deserts” by the USDA, i.e., you have to travel over an hour to get to a supermarket.

We certainly applaud this major effort and look forward to seeing it refined into more concrete proposals for new investment, education and incentives from the State.

Biomass: Some Hype, Some Hope

Usually when the topic of biomass comes up in our various discussions around the Park, everyone is gung ho and nod their heads positively.  Biomass is an important component of the ADK Futures strategy for both lowering our carbon footprint and keeping employment in the forestry sector.  It is also an important component of the North Country Regional Economic Development Strategy.  The Northern Forest Center also has made biomass heating a focus of new market development.  We are told that there is a lot of interest in biomass as a renewable, low net carbon contribution fuel source at the State and Federal level.

So, how big is this new market and how does that compare to our forest’s production?  There are a few researchers who have been looking at the numbers and one we have recently talked with is Dr. Charlie Canham, who is a Senior Scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, NY.  Charlie’s detailed work looks at like available supply and at the efficiency with which various kinds of wood supply can be converted to energy of various types. He looks are the entire Northern Forest; State level detail is the best available.  Charlie concludes that, regionally,  only very modest portions, in the 5% range, of most energy markets could be met through biomass fuels, but there are a few that could be more significant. One that is promising is using biomass for heating.  Specifically, base load heating for larger buildings like schools, government offices, prisons, etc.

Because pulpwood prices are so low, and our available wood supply is not sufficient to substitute a lot of fossil fuel, Charlie worries that a real boom in biomass might lead to unsustainable harvesting of forests and that would negate much of the carbon emission benefit of the fuel.  The image of trains loaded with pellets leaving the region come to mind, but it is never going to happen.  Pipeline natural gas will keep the use of biomass contained to areas like the Park with plenty of wood and no gas pipelines.  Also, there are other government estimates that are higher than Charlie’s. So we’re not currently worried about over using our working forest.

The proposed use of biomass in the ADK Futures strategy is actually pretty limited.  We propose to focus on converting from fuel oil to biomass heating systems in the Park using the modern gasifier furnaces that emit little in the way of smoke and pollutants.  We propose to meet the heating needs of the 130,000 people and large buildings within the Blue Line.  Most of the Park is never going to get gas lines, and this makes it a good market for locally sourced biomass as a heating fuel.  The idea that train loads of pellets with head from the region to replace coal in power plants is never going to happen, but biomass will be a great low cost local heating fuel for Park residents.

Using biomass for electrical power production in co-gen facilities is a good thing, but it isn’t likely to do well in plants just generating electricity and dumping the heat – it is too inefficient to compete with hydro power capability in our region.  The ReEnergy project at Ft. Drum is a large 60 Megwatt power plant.  It was built as a coal fired co-gen plant but the steam distribution part of the system failed and has been abandoned.  It will burn wood, including whole tree chips, wood waste from sawmills, crop fuels like willow, and other material like shredded tires. It will probably be a one-of-a-kind facility in the region, although the company has a dozen plants burning various fuels elsewhere.

The other point that Charlie and we agree on is that it is reasonable, over the next 25 years, to expect one or both of the two remaining pulp mills in the region will close.  Their closure won’t be for lack of wood, but for the decline in printing paper markets.  We will need new pulpwood markets just to keep the current logging industry in business.  Luckily biomass heating using pellets requires the same pulpwood now going to our two pulp mills (Ticonderoga and Glens Falls).   We need these markets to buy our low value trees, leaving higher value trees to grow into saw logs for later harvests. Think of these markets as providing funding for weeding our forests periodically.

The best feed stock for biomass heating is pellets produced from pulpwood, not debris from logging operations.  There is an argument that it is best to leave logging debris on the forest floor as the carbon is better sequestered that way and the material decays to provide nutrients for the next generation of trees. It is ugly, but most forest operations are ugly. Removing the entire above ground biomass of a forest may look better, but is not as healthy for the forest.  Finally, logging waste makes lousy dirty fuel and it is expensive to collect.

If the pulp mills close, we can imagine the possibility of re-purposing a pulp mill to synfuel production, similar to ethanol from corn, but that is a long way off.  So, it feels like expanding biomass heating in the Park now is a good way to get us on the path to continued productive use of our working forests in renewable, low carbon energy markets of the future.

There is going to be temptation for many land owners along the way to deviate from sustainable harvesting practices.  Some may be unwise enough to let saw logs get diverted into energy.  The industry, DEC and NYSERDA need to think now about the kinds of monitoring programs that will need to be in place to warn us that we are loosing the carbon emission advantage that we set out to achieve with these conversions.  We also have to win the war against invasive pests that could seriously destroy significant portions of our working forest.

For more info specifically about biomass in the Park, we recommend Jerry Jenkins book, Climate Change in the Adirondacks, The Path to Sustainability, pages 122-125.  Reading this section will answer a lot of questions.