The last question of the second presidential debate raised a critical concern this election. Rural America has lost jobs.
Entire energy industries have pulled up operations, leaving behind unemployment and environmental disaster. These now-poor communities are searching for a plan that will bring back prosperity. I propose a solution, one especially pertinent to California.
Instead of letting our fire-prone forests burn through scenic rural areas where there are few firefighters to stop them, we could harvest this biomass for clean energy while growing rural economies. Forests can sequester carbon and help combat climate change, but many trees in California’s forests are dry or dead after a multiyear drought. Dry wood burns easily. In California last year, nearly 9,000 wildfires burned more than 900,000 acres.
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As forests burn, they release carbon, a greenhouse gas, further worsening climate change effects and counteracting much of the good work the state has done to lower emissions. California operates America’s most progressive climate mitigation plan, AB 32, and the state also orchestrates the world’s second largest cap-and-trade program, raising funds aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions which spur climate change. In addition to destroying lives and resulting in costly emergency programs for many rural communities, wildfires cut into the state’s efforts keep emissions low.
California can turn this risk into a resource – using climate change funding to help spur renewable energy businesses by harvesting biomass. A thriving energy market for timber already exists in Northern Europe.
But instead of shipping our timber overseas, California could also keep its resources close to home by expanding on existing infrastructure. European countries import wood to feed incinerators that produce power and heat. Americans often feel uneasy about incineration, which conjures up the 1970s, when smokestacks spouted soot over nearby neighborhoods.
Updated with new technology, improved smokestack filters and strict environmental regulations, modernized incinerators have made such concerns into worries of the past. Many of the newly constructed European incinerators are in residential areas; their smokestacks emit largely water vapor.
To further expand their value, incinerators are often connected to district heating such that pipelines supply heat and hot water to multiple buildings. Each home connected to one of these districts no longer needs its own boiler, creating energy efficiency and cost savings. Already, there are more than 90 district heating networks in California, with half in Northern California and the other half in Southern California. UC Davis for example, spends more days operating its district heating system than it does its cooling system. Despite the warm climate, more than half of California’s energy supply to the residential sector goes to heat.
District heating has enabled many of the countries that ratified the Kyoto Protocol to decrease emissions. What’s relevant for California is that while the bulk of emission reduction attention is paid to the intractable transportation sector, even Scandinavian countries have been unable to reduce per capita emissions from transportation. There’s more to be gained in California by shifting focus to controlled timber harvest than on reducing the carbon output from cars.
As California seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we have a solution that has been piloted to success at a large scale. With a ready supply of timber that will burn, incineration and district heating would advance California’s environmental objectives and support job growth in rural areas. Write your local and state policymakers in support to help them “warm up” to the idea of heat planning.
Catherine Brinkley is a professor in community and regional development at UC Davis. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.