The energy transition has room for plenty of debate about what’s good and what’s bad (nuclear! hydrogen! beaming power from orbit!) but in New Hampshire the poster child for these arguments is biomass.

Burning wood for heat and power has been the center of economic, environmental and political tussles here for more than a decade. You remember it from the endless dispute over support for chip-burning power plants and Dartmouth College’s decision to remodel its campus heating system for biomass, a decision that the college took back after protests from many people.

I mention that history because one of the state’s most unusual entities, the satellite-watching New Boston Space Force Station, is debating whether to switch its main heating system to biomass as part of the military’s push for more renewable energy as well as more energy independence for its bases. 

Before we go on, let’s savor the delicious possibility of the Space Force using a fuel that dates to the Stone Age. It’s as if Capt. Kirk had a wood stove on the bridge of the Enterprise.

But enough pop culture.

I recently attended a wood-energy conference at the Space Force Station to discuss what might happen. The base has a hefty power draw (the exact amount is secret) to keep its six big tracking dishes in constant contact with scores of defense, government and private satellites, and about 120 personnel that use the buildings – only four of whom are active military, surprisingly. Even the front gate guards are contractors, albeit ferociously well-armed ones.

The base, which started as a World War II bombing range and has been tracking satellites since the 1960s, burns petroleum products for heat and also for backup power if it’s disconnected from the grid. It’s exploring the idea of switching to baseload power from a biomass plant, using the waste heat to warm buildings and hot water.

Last week’s conference was attended by forestry folks and people concerned about climate change so the angle was very much in favor of the idea, but there was recognition of the complexities.

“It’s a balancing act. If you desire one benefit you have to understand that others will take second or third place,” said Patrick Hackley, state forester.

Here’s a quick summary of the biomass-for-energy arguments.

  • Pro: Trees regrow so the emitted carbon will eventually be re-absorbed. Logging provides jobs in rural N.H. We need markets for non-sawmill lumber now that paper mills have shut to support the kind of logging that keeps forests healthy. New Hampshire has tons of trees and despite development, forest growth still outpaces removal.
  • Con: Regrowth won’t absorb the carbon from a burned tree for a decade or more, and climate change doesn’t give us that much time. Biomass emits particulates, as Keene’s air pollution demonstrates. We should save our forests, not create new reasons to cut them. We must concentrate on solar, wind, efficiency and market redesign rather than more “thermal energy.”

As you see, there are excellent arguments on all sides.

The debate is big here because our state, unlike Massachusetts, counts biomass as eligible for renewable energy benefits.

The Environmental Protection Agency has fueled the fire, so to speak, by ruling that “managed forests” are considered carbon neutral. What exactly constitutes a managed forest, however, is tough to say.

For example: Leaving behind the “slash” or low-grade wood after removing sawmill-ready lumber is good for wildlife but bad for recreation, good for long-term forest health but bad for logging economics, which can indirectly mean bad for forest health because it increases the incentive to clear-cut. So do you leave it there or take it out to be well-managed? 

Another complication is that it makes no economic or environmental sense to burn wood merely to make electricity – Granite Shore Power told the conference that this financial problem is why it shuttered the wood-burning plant at Schiller Station in Portsmouth.  The Space Force base would need to use the waste heat generated by boilers (“combined heat and power”) but since it needs a lot more electricity than heat, and it would hard to move heat to another customer out in the middle of such a rural/suburban area, this seems to produce an imbalance that could be hard to overcome.

Long-time readers will know that I’ve waffled on biomass energy. I was a fan, then I became mildly opposed, and now I’m mildly supportive because we need to do everything possible to stop burning fossil fuels as soon as possible. I think that well-run biomass energy needs to be part of the world’s energy mix, even if it’s less important and more problematic than clean energy and efficiency upgrades.

But it’s no slam-dunk, as the folks in the Space Force realize. I’m sure they’ll be relieved to get back to something easier, like chatting with satellites 22,236 miles overhead.

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