“Electrify everything” – the philosophy at the heart of recreating an economy that will flourish without destroying the ecosystem, is well on its way for transportation and home heating and appliances. Industrial machinery, however, is another matter.
We’ve spent more than a century perfecting relatively small machines to generate the oomph needed to run industrial processes, accepting the inefficiency, noise and fuel spills of internal combustion motors as avoidable. Electric motors are much more efficient and cleaner so that tradeoff can be avoided, but their development is still lagging in many areas, along with the development of batteries and power electronics. Switching out, even if possible, is often expensive.
But it can be worth it. Consider Goosebay Sawmill and Lumber in Chichester. In recent years they’ve switched to cutting lumber with two electric saws instead of diesel powered ones.
“It’s simpler, it’s cleaner as well. Push a button, turn it on. You turn it off and you don’t think about it until you need it again,” said Carl Mahlstedt, who founded the company more than 40 years ago.
Quieter, too. “Any internal combustion engine makes some noise. Working in proximity of a diesel engine, there’s a lot of noise … It’s tiring,” he said.
(At the homeowner level, I can attest to all of these benefits after switching to an electric lawnmower, weedwacker and chainsaw. I wouldn’t go back to the gas-slurping versions for anything.)
The other big advantage of electric power is that you can generate fuel yourself, which is difficult to do with a diesel engine. The example at Goosebay is a 78-kilowatt solar array, which produces enough power for about 10 homes. The 126 Renewable Energy Corp. 330-watt panels on the retail store and 111 panels on the pine barn were made possible by a $44,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development fund. U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster visited the mill Monday as part of a tour of USDA-funded rural development in New Hampshire.
“There are a number of factors that just make it make sense. I care about the world, don’t want to see the world die, and I believe that solar matters,” said Mahlstead, 76, explaining the panels as part of a transition throughout the company.
But Goosebay is a business and while solar on the roofs will save money in the long run – payback period is seven years or so, depending on where electricity rates go – a six-figure expenditure was still required to get started, not easy from a family business. “If there was not a grant of some sort, some help available, we wouldn’t have done it,” said Mahlstedt.
People whose livelihood depends on drilling, refining, transporting and selling diesel might be miffed at taxpayer support of a competing technology, yet they have long depended on all the rest of us paying the indirect costs of the pollution they produce, both local and global. Switching to electricity saves us some of that cost.
Electricity isn’t magically clean – at least half of our power is made by setting fire to gas pulled out of underground rocks, which also produces pollution – but electric motors are so much more efficient than combustion motors that switching technology virtually always saves energy and pollution. As we add more wind, solar and other non-pollution methods of generating electricity into the grid, it just gets better in ways that burning fossil fuels never can. Hence the “electrify everything” mantra.
Operators of commercial sawmills might be scoffing a bit right now because at 30 and 50 horsepower, Goosebay’s saws are pretty small, as Mahlstedt admits. Goosebay (named after the Labrador city where Mahlstedt spent time in the Merchant Marine) is still a specialty sawmill but it has been expanding the retail business over the past few years, transitioning from cutting lumber to selling it amid the brutal construction market.
Don’t expect to see all sawmills, let alone other manufacturers and industrial firms, tossing their diesel motors for electric versions until the industry develops further. But every bit helps.