Burning trees to power datacenters

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Enterprise IT Planet has an interesting column this week about an obvious source of renewable energy that is often overlooked: good ‘ol fashioned fires.

…What you may not know, however, is that burning wood and plants may also one day power your data center or client PC.

If the energy bill passes, utilities will be under a mandate to generate 20% of their electricity using renewable energy by 2020. Solar and wind are excellent candidates, but as I’ve blogged before, solar and wind face a whole host of problems in generating electricity for the heavily-populated Northeast, such as transmission and storage. As this Wall Street Journal article today explains, biomass may be an alternative. Current forecasts call for biomass to generate 4.5% of the U.S. electricity supply by 2030, more than wind or solar.

You may rightly point out that fires generate carbon, which seems to be contraindicated. Extra points for paying attention.

The article maintains that the activity is considered carbon neutral because the plants only release the carbon they absorbed while they were growing, something that would have happened when the plants died anyway. Contrast this with burning coal, which releases carbon that would have otherwise stayed locked up.

Not everyone agrees with this take on the carbon neutrality of burning wood; some say that in order to be carbon neutral you need to follow up your post-harvest burn with a planting of something that will re-capture all the carbon you just released, and this something has to be quantity more than what you burned. The issue is that the decomposition of a fallen tree (for example) does not release all of its carbon into the atmosphere, as burning does. Rather a bunch of it ends up sequestered in the soil, and you have to overplant your replacement lot to compensate for this.

The arguments quickly make your head hurt; yet another reason to fund fusion research.