Virginia Wood Powers Green Energy Transition

Jan 15, 2016

The evolution of green energy in this country looks very different from one state to the next.  The Southwest has plenty of sunshine.  The Midwest gets strong, steady winds to power land-based turbines, and the Mid-Atlantic is blessed with offshore wind and wood.  Sandy Hausman reports on how the forests of Virginia could reduce demand for coal and oil while building local economies.

Sam McCracken, executive director of the United Methodist Assembly Center, shows off his new wood burner, which generates plenty of heat but little pollution.

The United Methodist Assembly Center, about an hour southwest of Richmond, sits on rolling lawns, surrounded by oak trees that are centuries old.  Once a women’s college, it now hosts conferences of more than 400 guests.  Sam McCracken is the facility’s executive director.

“When I got here five years ago," he recalls, "we were trying desperately to heat the building using an old oil fired burner.”

He knew there were more than two dozen sawmills in the area – facilities generating tons of wood chips, so he persuaded his board to spend a million dollars on a new, highly efficient wood burner from Italy. 

He then proposed a deal with a local greenhouse.

“I’ll give you my ash," he said, "if you’ll give me some bedding plants and flowers,  so  I can beautify our grounds.  It would be a good trade.”

He quickly realized that wasn’t going to work.  The new burner produced very little smoke, and almost no ash. 

“We’re burning at 1265 degrees Fahrenheit," McCracken explains.  "That is largely why I don’t have any pollution and I don’t produce much ash.  I literally burn everything.  Three tractor trailer loads of fuel go into this little can for ash.”

Burning wood to produce electricity is controversial in environmental circles.  Critics say it’s an inefficient way to generate power and releases too much carbon into the atmosphere, but wood is considered a relatively clean, energy-efficient choice for heat.  The EPA signed off on a change at the Methodist Center, and McCracken now boasts he has lowered his yearly heating bill from $150,000 to under $30,000, while promoting his church’s goal of going green.

It’s the kind of deal the Virginia Department of Forestry favors.  Brian Decker heads its Community Wood and Energy Program.

“Here in the mid-Atlantic, most of our land is privately owned," he says. "The landscape is influenced by markets.  We wish to see more forests, so we try to create markets for the materials coming off those lands.”

And, Decker  says, shifting from oil, kerosene and propane, rural customers can keep a billion dollars in Virginia communities that harvest trees for lumber and are left with mountains of wood waste.