Interview with David Struhs, International Paper

Q: Your company uses a lot of energy, and the majority of it is green energy – bioenergy from the forests.  How do you feel about the push to use more bioenergy?  Can we find a solution to our energy problems in the forests?

A: When something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.  It is impossible to run a 21st century economy on an 18th century fuel.

Forest products companies simply extract the left over energy value from the trees we already have on site after we manufacture value-added products like paper and packaging.  

It should be obvious that burning our forests is not a large-scale, sustainable solution for our energy needs or for our environment.  And legislating it and subsidizing it will not make it so. 

Q: But trees can and do provide renewable energy.  Why such a negative position?

A: Not negative; just truthful.

There is a comparatively small amount of energy found in wood, pound-for-pound, compared to other, denser energy sources.  The laws of man can’t trump the laws of nature or the laws of thermodynamics.

The idea of finding our energy future by going back into the woods is ironic.  The Industrial Revolution started 225 years ago, in part, because population centers in Europe were running out of trees for fuel.  It was the shortage of trees that prompted the transition to more concentrated forms of energy, like coal.

The pathway to economic development in every corner of the globe has witnessed the migration away from wood and toward other energy sources ever since.

Q: Is that a fair comparison?  Don’t we know more today than we did at the Industrial Revolution about both forestry and energy?

A: Of course.  That’s why we should not create a false hope around using our forests as fuel.  

There were fewer than a billion people in the 18th century.  There are more than six billion today.  And average per capita energy consumption continues to accelerate – quadrupling in the last century alone.

And there is less land dedicated to growing trees.  Nearly a quarter of the increased concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is already blamed on the loss of forest land.  Even in the United States, where forest cover is relatively stable, 23 million acres are projected to be converted to other land uses by 2050, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

So we have many more people, using much more energy, with fewer forests available – if relying on forests for fuel wasn’t sustainable hundreds of years ago, it certainly isn’t today.

We are already realizing the sustainability problems of corn ethanol – and that is an annual crop.  All the more reason to be thoughtful and deliberate before subsidizing a transition to wood, where the consequences are much longer-lived.

Q: Then why is there a surge of political support for generating more electricity from burning wood instead of coal?  Why is there a drive to develop the conversion of wood into ethanol to fuel cars and trucks?

A: Because “renewable” is too often confused with “unlimited.”  They are not synonymous.

The sustainable use of a renewable resource, like trees, doesn’t mean you can use as much as you want.  To put it another way, “not running out” is not the same as “unlimited supply.”  If you over harvest, you will run out. 

That is why political intervention – subsidizing wood as fuel or demanding that fixed portions of energy demand are met by burning trees – does more than just distort markets; it also risks knocking sustainable forest resources out of balance.

Q: So what should we expect from the forests as part of our energy future?

A: Understand first what the sustainable forest yield is in specific regions or jurisdictions.  Then allow consumers to determine how that sustainable yield is ultimately consumed – as lumber, as fuel to generate electricity, as paper and packaging, or as feedstock for making ethanol fuel.  What do people value more?  What are they willing to pay?

My view is that consumers will make those demand choices better than relying on government to decide for them.  To the extent government feels compelled to intervene in the market at all, it should focus on increasing the supply of trees available, not determining how harvested trees should be used – and certainly not raising a false hope that there is enough wood available to allow a wholesale substitution for the fossil fuels on which we currently depend.


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I have but one lamp wait which my feet are guided; and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past.

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Save the Date: IGEL's 4th Annual Conference-Workshop on Valuing Water: Business Challenges & Opportunities for Innovation

Fourth Annual Conference-Workshop

Save the Date

March 22, 2011
World Water Day
8th Floor Colloquium
Jon M. Huntsman Hall
The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania
3730 Walnut Street, Philadelphia

Topic: Valuing Water: Business Challenges & Opportunities for Innovation