Three stories around Cascadia mark the spread of biofuels: biomass for heating schools, biodiesel for heating homes, and a new cross-border biodiesel project for trucks.

Brush fires in the school
The AP recently reported on a Forest Service program, Fuels for Schools, that sends the slashed brush and limbs from forest thinning to heat schools in several states including Idaho and Montana. Replacing oil furnaces, biofuels reduce cost, air pollution, and dependence on foreign oil. I’m all for finding new uses for waste products. But is this really a good idea?

  • We keep hearing that decades of fire suppression have built up dangerous amounts of fire-prone underbrush in the region’s forests. That’s probably right. Still, it’s not too implausible that thinning could get out of hand, leading to a different sort of ecological imbalance. Rampant thinning may also remove soil nutrients that forests needs to thrive.  And, as we’ve seen with Oregon’s and Washington’s school funding, using wood to heat schools could create perverse incentives to thin excessively in order to give schools cheaper heat.

    Still, on a limited scale, Fuels for Schools’ proven benefits likely outweigh the uncertain costs.

    Biodiesel for your home
    The Seattle PI reports that local biodiesel fans can now put "powered by biodiesel" bumper stickers on their homes. Two Seattle companies are offering 10 to 30 percent biodiesel heating oil. As expected, it doesn’t save you money and hasn’t been completely proven not to damage regular furnaces, but the companies say customers are very interested.

    Cross-border biodiesel
    A new cross-border biodiesel project called Bio-49 Degrees will replace some of the diesel in Puget Sound Energy and BC Hydro utility trucks with biodiesel from waste vegetable oil. Much of the biodiesel will be processed and distributed by students learning the trade at two technical colleges in Bellingham and Burnaby. The cross-border collaborative is another example of governments realizing that environmental issues follow bio-geographic, not political boundaries. Air quality in Bellingham, for instance, is affected more by Vancouver than by Seattle.