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The West of Us

A new book explores the people and ideas shaping our region and future

January 27, 2010, 12:00 am


Mark Sardella believes that replacing oil with renewable energy technology is not enough to solve the energy crisis. To this end, he co-founded Local Energy, which develops community-based energy projects that promote local ownership and job creation. He was instrumental in installing the biomass heating system at Santa Fe Community College, where he teaches.

I created Local Energy as a way to help communities become energy self-reliant, to learn to protect themselves against the hardship of rising energy costs. And by the way, I’m a lot less of a lunatic now than when I started this. I know I can’t fix this problem for the whole world.
When you study energy in this country, it’s mostly a study of money flows. This economy was set up to make certain people very wealthy through the control of energy resources. There is nothing that can produce a concentration of economic wealth the way petroleum does.

Almost all the money in our society is petroleum money. The ability to control the production of large amounts of energy is control of the economy.

I found out that utility dollars leave New Mexico at a rate of eighty-five cents on every dollar. If you have an investor-owned utility and you pay it a dollar, eighty-five cents of it goes to Wall Street and fifteen cents stays in the community. Santa Fe County alone leaks $85 million a year just in electricity and gas bills. Eighty-five million a year! And the money that leaves doesn’t undergo the local multiplier, which is 2.2 for utility dollars, so really, we lose about $190 million in economic activity per year by just paying utility bills.

I look at a community and ask, “What does this community have that it can use to protect itself against what is going on? How can we empower the rural communities?” The reason the biomass industry and biomass technology come to mind is because we have so much biomass fuel and it’s really not used much.

By definition, biomass is solar energy stored in organic matter. Everything that grows outdoors, all the plants and trees, are biomass. The neat thing about working with a tree is the only carbon a tree gives off when you burn it is the carbon that it took in during its lifetime. That’s all it can give. So while burning a tree does produce CO2, it is CO2 that was taken in during its lifetime. And the next tree actually pulls the carbon back in. So as long as you’re harvesting and consuming biomass at a sustainable rate—in other words, no faster than the trees are growing—you’re actually reducing carbon in the atmosphere.

Biomass at one time accounted for the biggest component of work done in the economy. Farm labor and going out to cut wood were pretty much what we did, wood for the stove and the wood for cooking. We had a biomass economy, and we gave it up because along came higher value resources. But a biomass economy is not something we have to invent.

In Tres Piedras there’s a lumber mill called Kuykendall Lumber. It’s the biggest sawmill left in northern New Mexico. The guy cuts around four million board feet a year, and he has an enormous pile of leftover slabs. I estimate, based on the slab piles I looked at, that he’s got to have fifty thousand tons of biomass sitting on-site. When we got there, he was setting up a gang saw to try to push fifty thousand tons of slabs, one piece at a time, through the saw. He was going to try to cut it up into eighteen-inch pieces and see if he could get people to come haul it away for firewood. When I pulled in, the fire marshal had just left and told him that he needed to get rid of the piles because he was in danger of burning down all of Tres Piedras. Biomass is a totally unutilized fuel right now. There are probably millions of tons of it nationwide, sitting in piles waiting for people to do something with it.

I saw the finest biomass technology in the world in Austria. You can throw log chips into a biomass boiler and more than 90 percent of the wood’s energy ends up as hot water to heat your home or business. Austria is a tiny country, and they have 843 biomass systems similar to the one we’re doing at the community college. They have very little land: they’re one fourth of the size of New Mexico, and their population is three and half times larger. They have a very dense environment, very little space, and a lot a lot of forest, and they do very intensive forest management.

I received a $1.3 million grant from the US Department of Agriculture to research how to use local biomass to create the maximum amount of economic benefit for a town like Santa Fe. It turns out you don’t start in downtown Santa Fe; you start in the rural communities surrounding it. So, Local Energy just did a project at Santa Fe Community College. We put in a very small biomass unit, and we created a biomass vocations training program there. Now the college’s goal is to become the premier biomass vocational training outfit in northern New Mexico.

We not only promote learning about biomass vocations, grading the fuel, stoking the furnace, and so on, we’re also teaching how one would actually go into business and become a value-added producer. In other words, how would you take a fuel wood producer from the rural community, maybe someone who is currently cutting and selling firewood, and help him become a heat provider? How would you help him own, operate, and maintain a small, low-cost biomass system? How would you help him finance it and then sell heat? We show people how to outfit their systems with utility-grade heat meters so they can do that. I want to help put money directly into rural people’s pockets. That’s how we create economic development.

The Santa Clara Pueblo and the Taos Pueblo both figured it out. The Santa Clara Pueblo just asked us to develop and implement a system to heat thirty-five low-income homes on the pueblo with biomass. When I asked them how they were going to get their fuel [and told them] that they were going to need to create a fuel cooperative, they said, “Well, we’ve got twenty-two guys with pickup trucks and chain saws who drive up into the woods every day. Why don’t we just have them load their trucks before they come home?”

People ask me all the time if I get depressed looking at all this information. The answer is no, not anymore. The fact that we’re undergoing change is what’s important. It may be difficult, but it’s a good thing. I think the time between where we are now and when we discover how to live a sustainable lifestyle is going to be loaded with hardship and really, really difficult issues. But ultimately, we are going in the right direction, and that’s what really matters.

From the book Voices of the American West, reprinted with permission from Fulcrum Publishing.

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