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Pioneer Editorial: Wood-fired instead of coal-fired?

The recent movement away from siting new coal-fired plants still leaves the nation in a desperate need to provide baseline power while research continues into coal's replacement.

That answer might be wood -- but one that must be used cautiously.

USA Today reported Wednesday that wood power is on the rise -- growing from one wood-burning plant in 2007 to seven last year and a dozen so far this year.

So far, much of the wood power is coming from wood waste -- bark, twigs and other waste wood. That's a good idea, and there's plenty of waste wood.

But as demand for baseline power increases, the temptation grows to use wood itself standing in our national forests. That too can be used if on a sustainable basis. It would help in our area to turn wood harvest from waferboard use to energy use. But we must not grow an energy demand so great that we must clear cut large swaths of pristine woodland to satisfy our energy use.

That's why wood-burning power plants never will replace coal-fired plants, but in smaller, more regional settings, they can provide consistent sources of energy while waiting for wind, solar and other renewable energies to become as consistent.

USA Today's report notes that electricity from new wood-burning plants grew in megawatts from eight in 2007 to 115 in 2008 to 310 projected for this year. One megawatt can power up to 900 homes.

On the drawing board are three 100-megawatt plants, scheduled to start in 2012 that together would provide enough electricity to power up to 270,000 homes. Image the amount of wood needed to provide a consistent power base.

As with any use of our natural resources, a balance must be found. Burning wood instead of coal holds promise, but we must not deplete that resource as well.

Still, the whole field of biomass energy holds promise as yet another source renewable and sustainable energy -- if used correctly.