Earth Day Portland 2014


      We celebrated Earth Day this year by putting on two B2M demos in Portland. The first was on the campus of Portland State University, and was a repeat of the demo we did there last year. The second was at the full Portland Earth Day celebration on Saturday.

      The Portland event featured an opportunity for presenters to take the event's official "Soap Box" and talk to the attendees about the work they were doing and what made it relevant. I put together and delivered this sort talk about why a program focused on supporting communities in deep country is important to folks who live in the city.

Thriving Through Woody Biomass
Portland Earth Day 2014

      For many years, I served as lead director for the Windward Education and Research Center, a non-profit sustainability research cooperative located east of here on the southern edge of the Cascadian wilderness. I retired from that position in 2011 to devote my efforts to what I see as one of the crucial challenges facing us at the end of the age of cheap fossil fuels. Today, I want to share with you our vision of using the Pacific Northwest's abundant supply of woody biomass to localize energy production in a way that will allow Portland and the rural communities that surround it to thrive together.

      I come as an ambassador from deep country. I come to ask for your help, and I ask it for all our sakes. There is a vital crisis happening in rural areas as the rising cost of fossil fuels drives people to leave their home and move into the city. This trend threatens the rural-urban exchange that makes city life possible.

      Rural people who abandon their land and move to the city compete with you for jobs, housing and all the other resources that support life in the city. That is a two-fold problem because city life depends on the resources produced by the rural folk who live out there on the front lines of land stewardship. For city people to prosper, rural people need to be able to continue living with the land and sending food, fuel and fiber into the city. Without country grown food, the city starves. Without the fuels country folk supply, the city goes dark. Without the watersheds rural people protect, the city's water becomes unfit to drink.

      Ensuring that rural people can continue to live with the land is an important humanitarian issue, but it's also a matter that touches directly on the ability of your city to sustain your children and your children's children. Today there are more than a million people living in the Portland metropolitan area. Once there were that many people living in Rome. They too were supported by a steady flow of rural resources, right up until the Empire crashed and the flow stopped. A century later the population of Rome had dropped from one million to forty thousand people--and sheep grazed in the Coliseum.

      Today we face a profound environmental crisis, but I believe there are two key reasons why Portland can look forward with hope: its rivers and its forests. When cheap fossil fuel becomes a distant memory, our rivers will still run. Resources produced in rural communities will float down the Columbia and the Willamette on wooden rafts, and enable Portland to thrive. I believe that the culture of this city will flourish if rural people are able to live decent and sustainable lives in deep country, if they have the ability to steward the farms and forests that will sustain the Portland of tomorrow. But in order for that tomorrow to happen, we need to prepare for it today.

      The Pacific Northwest is fortunate to have forests that store huge amounts of sunshine, rain and carbon dioxide. This woody biomass contains the chemical building blocks we need to replace at least some of the petroleum our cities depend on. Instead of manufacturing huge photovoltaic arrays to collect solar energy, we need to plant more trees. Instead of digging for coal, we need to care for the forest by removing the excess material that leads to catastrophic fires. Instead of damming more rivers, we need to use the river of biomass that flows from our forests to fuel our cars and heat our homes.

      The path towards a local, sustainable economy is clear enough, but there are real challenges that need to be addressed along the way. For example, woody biomass is a dilute form of energy; to fulfil its potential, the energy in woody biomass needs to be concentrated and converted into a form that can be transported to the city efficiently. Demonstrating the small-scale conversion of woody biomass into liquid fuels is the work that forms the heart of the Biomass to Methanol Project. Massive industrial complexes do this work in ways that serve the interests of the multinational corporations; B2M runs counter to that by adapting this technology to serve rural villages so that they can continue to play their part in the rural-urban exchange.

      The ability to transform woody biomass into liquid fuel will build energy security for rural communities. Energy security that literally empowers the transformation of raw materials into the products you need. This work will enhance financial security in rural communities and food security in the cities while re-establishing forest health. The Biomass to Methanol Project is committed to enabling rural communities to thrive by producing what you need in a manner that supports the sustainable use of rural ecosystems. We need your help to ensure that this vital rural-urban exchange can continue to our mutual benefit. Because if we leave this work undone, it's only a matter of time before the multinational corporations will move in and fill this niche.

      Energy security, like food security, increases with localization. Local fuel plants are more efficient because they require less feedstock transportation and less transportation of energy products. When local biomass is used, the ash can be returned to the forest to support further growth. Process heat from a local plant can be used to heat nearby homes and greenhouses. Local people are motivated to care for their forest and the land that embodies their children's future.

      I've come to ask you to help support this work. This project is well under way and we're making real progress towards this goal, but the need is great and the time is short. Equipment that's capable of safely dealing with the pressures and temperatures involved in biomass conversion isn't cheap, and our funding for hardware comes from the True Fans who go to our website and sign up to donate $10 a month or more.

      All too often, projects such as this get swallowed up by venture capitalists. Others are started with government grants and then have to be abandoned when the political winds shift. If you believe in the importance of open-source research that's freely available to all, please sign on as a True Fan and help fund this important work.