Written By Karl VonBerg.

Posted on July 1st, 2020.

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New York has a vast ‘solar farm’ in that about two-thirds of the state’s land cover (18 million acres) is forested.

Tree leaves are like mini-solar panels. New York has a vast ‘solar farm’ in that about two-thirds of the state’s land cover (18 million acres) is forested.

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View is looking north across the Roses Brook Valley in Delaware County, NY.

Let’s compare the processes involved with producing electricity between trees (biomass) and solar panels. In biomass electricity production, trees photosynthesize and grow (adding wood) > wood is harvested and chipped up > chips are burned to make steam > steam turns a turbine > the turbine makes electricity. There is very little cost on the front end as trees use free sun power. There is a big cost on the back end where the electricity is produced in a power plant.

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The biomass cogeneration plant (produces steam and electricity) at Lyonsdale in northern New York. 

In photovoltaic electricity production, the big cost is on the front end, when solar panels are manufactured. The process begins by melting sand (primarily composed of silicon) with boron to make ingots, or blocks. Boron gives the silicon positive electrical polarity. Paper thin wafers are cut from the ingot. Wafers are coated to reduce reflection. Metal conductors are added on each surface to make a solar cell. Solar cells are soldered together to make a solar panel. Panels are tested and then mounted in the field and connected to the grid. Then the solar panels are ready to use free sun power.

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Photovoltaic system image by Sebastian Ganso from Pixabay.

Currently, we use about half of the annual growth of New York forests for things like making wood products, producing electricity, making paper and heating structures. So, some of what we don’t use could be used to produce more electricity.

There are tradeoffs to using each renewable energy source. Let’s look at some of the pros and cons of these two types, starting with the pros.

Benefits of biomass and photovoltaics:

Biomass

  • Renewable
  • Stores energy in tree/plant
  • Stores carbon in wood
  • Converts CO2 into oxygen
  • Woods can offer peace, quiet and beauty
  • Costs can = photovoltaics
  • Requires little energy to grow Is available at any time

Photovoltaics

Drawbacks to biomass and photovoltaics:

Biomass

  • Burning biomass creates pollution
  • Requires logging machines, trucks to transport biomass, and a power plant
  • Logging temporarily removes trees
  • Logging trails can increase erosion
  • Timber harvests can be unsightly to some

Photovoltaics

Each renewable energy has its place in helping us decrease the amount of CO2 we are putting into the atmosphere through burning fossil fuels (non-renewable like oil and gas).

What can you do that can increase your use of renewable energy and/or help reduce your production of CO2?

  • Use renewable sources to heat with: wood (can use wood pellets), geothermal, heat exchanger or solar (there are rebates available).
  • Install solar (there are rebates to incentivize the upfront cost) or biomass for domestic hot water.
  • Switch to a solar farm to get your electricity
  • Install photovoltaic solar panels (rebates available)
  • Drive a smaller vehicle
  • Car pool or take public transportation
  • Plant trees


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