agriculture: October 2009 Archives

Burning Transitions

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How Planned, Localized, Sustainable Non-food Biomass Utilization Can Help Ease Energy Descent and Mitigate Global Climate Change

by Krys Cail


This article provides a framework for considering the socio-economic structural changes that can lead to a different, more stable, and more sustainable local market for heating fuel and electrical energy.

The use of combustion for heat and power is an established and developed technology, while the successful social balancing of environmental and ecological costs with short-run economic benefit is a new, and daunting, challenge. The change, or transition, needed to use the locally available resource of non-food woody and grassy biomass to help solve current energy problems is socio-economic change, not technical innovation. We can supplant at least some current fossil fuel use with the more carbon-neutral combustion of earth surface harvested feedstocks using current technology. Nonfood biomass direct combustion[1] can be undertaken in a localized context. We can take an enlightened approach to the sustainable management of feedstock planting, growing, and harvesting, energy-efficient processing, complete and clean burning, and ash recycling. Developing such a system also offers a means of developing the alternative commercial channels necessary to move the Tompkins County area to a future of heat and energy production that is not just more environmentally friendly, but also more economically insulated, or decoupled, from the gyrations of the world oil market in a time of post-peak oil.

Other current and emerging heat and power technologies, such as solar, wind, geothermal, and small-scale hydro are “greener” forms of alternative energy and may be our future mainstays. However, in biomass-rich locations like Tompkins County, the economic attraction of biomass as an affordable substitute for fossil fuels will ensure that it will come into commercial use as oil and other energy commodities rise in price. If the development of biomass energy is controlled by the current energy industry, large energy companies will guard their market share by organizing only large-scale markets, even in situations where energy efficiency favors smaller, more localized scale. Conversely, building localized commercial structures to sell nonfood biomass-generated heat and electrical energy could feasibly provide a template for the effective investment in and commercialization of localized energy from other, greener sources in the future.

The kind of community development that allows areas the size of Tompkins County to become more energy self-reliant—”import substitution” for the energy products of the fossil fuel industry—can accomplish the twin goals of creating green jobs and modeling the kind of less global, more local commercial/economic interactions that are referred to as relocalization. Relocalization of energy provision is a necessary response to energy descent; accomplishing this using tested community development practices will ensure better success in the required transition.

The First Two Burning Transitions

Combustion (fire), used as a tool, was a major human cultural advance, and perhaps helped our species to evolve. In his recent book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human,[2] Richard Wrangman, a Harvard University biological anthropologist, postulates that the taming of fire, and its use to cook food, was the key tool-using event that allowed human evolution to proceed from pre-human hominid to modern humankind. He postulates that cooked food allowed us to divert calories from chewing to growing larger brains.

The centrality of fire to the establishment of human society is also evidenced in religions and belief systems worldwide. One classic rendition is the myth of Prometheus, the champion of humankind who was said to have stolen fire for use by mortals from the immortal gods.

From ancient times up until the Industrial Revolution, humans used combustion sustainably, with only localized or regional instances of deforestation.[3] Early burning was carbon-neutral as far as the earth’s atmosphere was concerned.

Some primitive peoples did set massive fires. For instance, Plains Indians used prairie fires to stampede buffalo over cliffs; Tompkins County’s first peoples probably (like New England’s natives) routinely burned the forest understory to make for easier hunting access;[4] and innumerable horseback European raiders ransacked and ruined settled villages with fire—as Revolutionary War General Sullivan did here in the Finger Lakes. These combustion materials were already a part of the earth surface/atmosphere carbon exchange. In geologic/atmospheric time, even very big surface fires are just blips. The carbon released into the atmosphere would have otherwise been added shortly anyway through decomposition. It was the Industrial Revolution and the use of first coal, and then oil and natural gas, that began the process of unbalancing the planet’s atmospheric carbon load by making use of the carbon stores of former eons, previously safely buried underground. This led to both global climate change, and to the depletion of easily extractable in-ground carbon sources we speak of as peak oil and energy descent.[5]

The first “burning transition,” then, was the Prometheus transition. This transition changed humankind (if you don’t believe Richard Wrangman that it changed our evolution, you must at least concede that it drastically altered our culture). The Prometheus transition enabled the development of agriculture and led to deforestation in a few subcontinental areas But the second burning transition—and the advent of the steam and internal combustion engines of the Industrial Revolution—resulted eventually in major land and sea transformation and widespread ecosystem and climactic change. The first burning transition changed humankind, while the second burning transition changed the planet. Each burning transition also markedly changed the socio-economic systems that people used to regularize and control the commercial and familial relationships that provide us essentials such as heat in cold weather, food, and, after the second burning transition, electric power.

Planning a Third Burning Transition

Technological optimism about alternative fuel development usually focuses on replacing combustion of “dirty” fuels with combustion of “clean” fuels, while leaving the production and distribution systems for liquid and gaseous fuels and electrical power in its heritage configuration. That configuration is controlled by some of the most powerful international corporations on earth—oil and gas developing, refining and shipping companies, electrical utilities, and coal-mining and shipping companies. These actors have a vested interest in seeing that the socio-economic systems of the future do not deviate too much from those of the past, ensuring these corporations continued market share. Is that to our advantage?

Is the needed change limited to a substitution of one fuel for another, one feedstock for another, or one power source for another, with no substantive change to social, industrial, political, or economic institutions? Or is a more substantive transition needed? Will social and economic change follow technology, or will we invent and popularize only the technologies our social and economic systems predispose us to aim toward?

“Local planning for sustainable use of local resources” is the basis of egalitarian post-colonial social and economic development. It is also the key to the development of a third, socioeconomic/cultural burning transition. Rather than assume an international market in energy as a given and hope for technological fixes, we should focus in the third burning transition on the relocalization of systems of sourcing, producing, and distributing heat and power. In that context, the on-going technological development can be decoupled from the economic fortunes of transnational corporations that are difficult to call to account on environmental effects in any particular place. A different kind of optimism about confronting the challenges of global climate change and peak oil can be envisioned, one in which the needed change in socio-economic structures is the direct goal, in order to accomplish the most efficient and environmentally-sound use of energy within current technological and environmental limits. This might then be followed by additional technological advancement, as needed and affordable—perhaps even a Solar or Geothermal transition that makes burning itself unnecessary. However, those possibilities are too far away for a complete transition right now, and right now is when global climate change must be addressed. Rather than trust humanity’s on-going scientific and technological innovation to “come up with something” that will make unfettered world markets in energy able to function within environmental limits, this optimism postulates that human communities can learn to balance their own energy needs with the sustainability of their own environments through socio-economic or socio-political progress.

The third burning transition is, in essence, a relocalization of energy production and an implementation of the household and commercial structures needed to manage more local production and consumption of energy, one that brings the source and use points of energy geographically closer together. This is a transition that requires no new or special technological development, but rather advancements in business form development and industrial design, including business and consumer combustion equipment and new approaches to the design of district heating and electrical power grids.

The Need for a Local Approach

Localities differ in what kind of resources they have available to produce heat and power. Thus far, most research and development in the area of biomass use as an alternative energy feedstock has used a non-localized model. Raw biomass is generally first converted into liquid fuel (both corn-based and cellulosic ethanol are liquid fuels), and then distributed via pipeline, tanker, and tanker truck, similar to petroleum. Or, alternatively, biomass is burned directly, but the resulting heat is made into electric energy and distributed far and wide on the electric grid. Both of these models contain large distributional inefficiencies.[6]

Government subsidies for one form of fuel over another can have unforeseen effects. Often, governments subsidize use of “cleaner” or more carbon-neutral fuels or combustion equipment via a direct consumer subsidy, such as a tax credit, or an indirect subsidy, such as a producer tax break or capital investment in production plant and equipment. Corn ethanol—an alternative fuel that even its promoters are now seeing as a “transitional” alternative fuel—is an example of how governmental enthusiasm for jobs, plant, and equipment in every legislator’s district can result in a glut of relatively expensive alternative fuel production in remote areas, with little hope of export at a profit in the face of price variation in the oil markets, where the product competes directly.

Some European governments have backed the development of small-scale solid-fuel biomass combustion, from pellet stoves to wood-chip furnaces to multi-fuel-burning combustion units and ultra-efficient gasification boilers that power electric generators as well as district heating grids. While this has led to much more widespread adoption of the technologies than in the US, there are still some perverse global-market effects. The governmental support for wood pellet burning in Northern Europe (direct consumer subsidies for pellet stoves, for instance) has resulted in the US market for wood pellets being significantly impacted by European demand: shortages of wood pellets in both the US and Europe in recent years have been blamed, in part, on the fact that most wood pellets produced in the US are shipped, under contract, to Europe, rather than available for growing domestic use.[7] If the domestic demand for wood pellets rises because fuel oil rises significantly in price, manufacturers can’t satisfy it, and resulting shortages drive up wood pellet prices in tandem with fuel oil prices.

Government support for the development of green energy is surely needed. But, as illustrated above, direct support for particular technologies can have perverse outcomes, when, in the real world, the variable and uncontrollable price of oil interferes with orderly marketing of the product as a substitute for the fuel and power sources people are accustomed to using. For that reason, localized community-controlled energy development for heat and electricity is preferable, as it can reasonably allow a community or geographic region to claim its own energy resources and begin to decouple its energy costs from the world oil market. In addition, as is the case with consumers developing commercial relationships with their local farmers, a measure of consumer loyalty and flexibility can be gained by localizing the transaction.

Local Resources: Prime Determinant of Appropriate Combustion Feedstocks

The third burning transition will look different in different locations. Relocalization offers the opportunity for each region or locality to assess what underutilized or sustainably developable resources it possesses, as well as what market power its heat and energy consumers represent. The skills and resources of local people must be accounted for, as well as underutilized natural resources and plant and equipment in the built environment. This assessment of resources can be done as a part of a tried and true methodology of community and economic development—Asset-based Community Development.[8] An asset-based approach to community development allows for customizing programmatic goals to highlight natural resources, human capital agglomerations, and other local conditions that will make one form of biomass more feasible to use as a feedstock for combustion than another.

The local foods movement has made some use of the phrase “Eat your landscape.” The idea is that, by engaging in an ongoing direct involvement in growing food (gardening or CSA working membership) or direct-from-the-local-farmer commercial interaction with a manager of food producing lands in your locale (“landscape”), one can exercise, in common with one’s neighbors, some influence over what kind of a landscape it is now and in future. The goal is use that is environmentally sound, sustainable, and provides a living wage to those who manage and work the land.

A similar approach can be taken to the orderly and sustainable harvest and cultivation of biomass for combustion in place of oil, gas, and, especially, coal. Although these fuel substitutions are not the ultimate long-term solutions to our energy problems, they do offer us a mechanism for developing the distributed, local commercial interactions that can and will set the stage for the development of more long-term sustainable energy systems. In much of Tompkins County, for instance, woody and grassy biomass may be available for use as a combustion fuel, but the commercial infrastructure to sustainably and profitably grow, harvest, and process that biomass needs to be developed. Without a community development effort in this area, woodlands and pastures in Tompkins County will continue to fall into an unused and unmanaged condition that does not allow for optimum carbon sequestration and invasive plant control and does not support the development of local energy and green jobs.

In Tompkins County, most of the underutilized resource is privately owned forested or pasture/hay land that is minimally managed and, in some cases, is becoming overgrown with invasive brush species. The following chart shows the acreage of various types of landcover in the county.


The accompanying map shows a pattern of land use that conforms to topography: the northern portion of the county, which is composed of flatter land and relatively more of the better soils for agricultural use, has a greater percentage of acreage in cultivated cropland and pasture, while the southern, hillier portion of the County is more densely wooded.

Tompkins County Map

Organizing for Local Energy Production and Consumption of Biomass

“Eat your landscape” implies sustainability. A bountiful landscape might continue to provide food over decades, centuries, even millennia if it were properly managed and husbanded. “Burn your landscape” has none of the overtones of sustainability—it seems, rather, cataclysmic: a landscape devoid of living things.

There are other options, however. An actively managed forest or hayfield can continue to produce biomass for combustion purposes over a long period of time if attention to the ecosystem allows for the return of depleted soil nutrients through ash spreading and the building of fertility through support of various plant and animal communities. Woodlands actively managed for sustainable harvest of woody biomass could provide plant and animal habitat, sequester carbon, and produce some hardwood lumber as well. The key here is the way in which natural resource lands are managed. Under some systems of management, carbon sequestration and selection to impede the advance of invasive species are optimized, creating a forest that is more hospitable to native flora and fauna and more able to ameliorate the excess atmospheric carbon than the previous unmanaged woodland. However, such management systems are not the most economically viable under current market structures.

Current economic structures, if left unchecked, could cause cataclysmic environmental damage as harvested biomass becomes less costly than oil. Clear-cutting woodlands, while devastating to natural communities and water quality, is the cheap way to amass a large tonnage of biomass in an area like Tompkins County. Utility companies buy wood-chip tonnage to co-fire with coal from low bidders, developing an industry built around mechanized, invasive forest destruction. Environmental regulation has proven to be a weak tool for controlling industries that have a market incentive to use forests or grasslands as a short-term, rather than permanent, resource. An example is the Catalyst Energy/Treesource Solutions biomass aggregation facility in nearby Burdett, Schuyler County, which is offering loggers one low price for biomass tonnage to be used as wood chips to heat and power the US Salt plant in Watkins Glen.

On an individual scale, landowners who use firewood for heat are likely to take the long view of their investment in their land and do their best to manage their woods to maintain sustained production as well as multi-functionality (use of the woodlands for additional purposes, such as wildlife habitat, hunting, nature appreciation, privacy). When surveyed, owners of rural acreage in Tompkins County were amenable to seeing their underutilized parcels of land produce an income stream—but very few had either time or capital to devote to this.[9]

Several local initiatives in Tompkins County have sprung up to test structures that might become a part of a third burning transition here. In the Town of Danby, landowners have come together to market the biomass from their properties (as well as potentially other land-based products) as a group. This organization of owners of fallow fields and under-managed woodlots is based on the producer-coop configuration that has been successful in some agricultural areas.[10]

Another effort, spearheaded by Anthony Nekut, is intended to draw together investors and entrepreneurs with the purpose of developing a medium-scale pellet production facility in the county. Tony would like such a plant to have the capacity to palletize both woody and grassy biomass, and he envisions both local sourcing of biomass and local sales of pellets for home and business heating. [An article by Tony is scheduled for future publication on—Ed.]

A third approach to using biomass to supplant some of the fossil fuels used for home heating in Tompkins County is Abbot Development’s initiative to develop Cornell University workforce housing on a Danish-style district heating model, with a combined heat and power plant as an integral feature of the development. This plan is currently in concept development stage, but it could easily be implemented if chosen by Cornell as the model for their new housing development. Again, the technology is available and ready to use; it is the commercial market structures that require some developmental attention to establish such a project in this country.

A fourth local project focuses on commercial combined heat and power along with a managed woody-biomass plantation scheme: RPM Ecosystems, a Dryden company involved in the production of fast-growing nursery stock for reforestation projects worldwide, has worked with Congressman Michael Arcuri to obtain federal funding for a demonstration project. The project involves a wood-fired combined heat and power plant that would provide heat for the greenhouses and offices of the nursery along with sufficient electrical power to operate the facility. Additionally, plantations of RPM Ecosystems trees would be established with a goal of producing some biomass along with some hardwood lumber while maximizing forest canopy (and carbon sequestration) throughout the growth and development of the tree farm.

One approach that is not currently in evidence in Tompkins County, but might be worth investigating, is the “CSE.” CSE stands for “Community Supported Energy,” and it is modeled on the successful CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) structure. This is something of a consumer cooperative: energy consumers that would like to use local resources to produce energy band together, and, through pooling investment funds, establish critical mass to bring a production facility on-line, which they pledge to support through their energy purchases. This model was first promoted by environmental advocate Greg Pahl, and has been tried with some success in Vermont.[11]


The above examples merely scratch the surface of possible structures for relocalizing our heat and energy markets. And the traditional approach should not be ignored, either: use of cordwood for home and business heating has increased markedly as fossil fuel prices increase and can be expected to continue to increase, particularly in rural areas of the county. More people now make a main business or a profitable sideline of harvesting firewood, or buy less fossil fuel because they harvest some firewood for their own use. Several local retail outlets and service businesses sell and/or install combustion equipment, and technology refinements have made cordwood burning cleaner and more efficient than it was in the past.

A third burning transition—based on community development and economic innovation—is needed if we are to avoid the worst potential effects of global climate change and post-peak-oil economic instability. In the first burning transition, fire changed humankind; in the second, humankind using fire changed the world until disaster threatened. In the third burning transition, humankind must organize new structures of production and exchange to socially contain the power that unlimited individual fire-use unleashes on the world, to protect both the species and the environment on which it depends. In the future, the structures so organized can be again transformed, in a fourth burning transition, to non-carbon-based feedstocks such as the sun’s direct energy, geothermal heat, and wind and wave energy.


[1] “Direct combustion” refers to biomass burned as a solid fuel, not a liquid or gas fuel product or fuel additive.

[2] New York: Basic Books, 2009.

[3] Localized or regional deforestation should not be underestimated in its capacity to decimate human, animal, and plant communities, including driving some species to extinction. It does not, however, represent a pattern of world-wide changes, despite its severe impact on circumscribed areas.

[4] Cronon, William. Changes in the Land, Revised Edition: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983.

[5] Biomass/ethanol/biodiesel schemes dependent upon intensively cultivated food crops like soy or corn fail to break the connection between the oil market and alternative fuel if a system of petro-chemical input dependent agriculture is used. They also raise grave ethical concerns, commonly referred to as the “food-fuel controversy.”

[6] While current average distributional losses for electrical energy are in the range of seven percent, biomass resources, like solar resources, may be located at a greater distance from urbanized areas than existing power plants, resulting in even larger distributional losses or larger amounts of transportation energy to move the raw material closer to the point of use.

[7] More on the international market volatility of wood pellets is available in the Renewable Energy World magazine article “Time for Stability: An Update on International Wood Pellet Markets,” Feb. 4, 2008. Available at

[8] See The Asset-based Community Development Institute at or Wikipedia on Asset-based Community Development at

[9] Cail, Krys. Tompkins County Landowners Survey. Report for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County on the results of a mail survey of owners of large parcels of rural land in Tompkins County undertaken by the Green Cities class of Cornell University’s City and Regional Planning Department in 2005.

[10] Begun as a project for Elizabeth Keokosky’s masters degree in City and Regional Planning at Cornell University, this initiative has progressed to the point of establishing a local steering committee and is in the process of drawing up incorporation documents.

[11] Pahl, Greg. The Citizen-powered Energy Handbook: Community Solutions to a Global Crisis. White River Junction, Vt.: Chelsea Green Publishing, March 2007. See also Renewable Energy World magazine, “Community-supported Energy Offers a Third Way,” Greg Pahl, March 12, 2007. Available at

Planning for Energy Descent

Some time in the next 30 years, life will start to become very different from what it is now. By mid-century we will use much less energy; we will live every aspect of our life much closer to home; and we will be much poorer in material terms, because energy and wealth are basically the same thing in an industrial society.

Energy descent β€” a radical reduction in our use of energy β€” is certain, but it’s not clear yet which of several factors will cause it to begin. Perhaps we will decide to do the right thing about climate change and reduce our CO2 emissions 80 or 90 percent, which would require changes almost that large in our actual consumption of energy. And there are other ways we might experience a radical reduction in our use of energy; for example, economic collapse, or an expanded war in the middle east. But the factor that makes energy descent a sure thing and sets the theme for this century is "peak oil" β€” the leveling off of global oil production and then its eventual and inexorable decline.

The timing of the peak is debatable, with forecasts ranging from 2005 (that is, already here) to 2030. But most credible estimates agree with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which concluded in a recent study that "world oil production is at or near its peak," and with the director of research at OPEC, who said recently that "we are at, or near, the production peak of world oil, if not on the downward slope."

After the peak, the growing gap between falling world oil production and ever-increasing global demand will send prices skyward, with economic results that can only be imagined but will certainly include greatly restricted mobility due to the high cost of fuel and much higher prices for most goods, including food. The result will be less disposable income, a life lived closer to home, and a greater reliance on the goods and services that can be provided locally. Since the supply of oil and other fossil fuels is finite, this outcome is guaranteed. The only question is, Shall we plan for what we can see coming, or just let it happen to us?

A group of area citizens, TCLocal, has begun planning now. TCLocal contributors are committed to researching various aspects of energy descent in Tompkins County and writing up a preliminary plan for each aspect based on purely local challenges and resources. This is one such plan.

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