Could energy be the North Country’s next big thing?

The last couple of weeks, I’ve listened in as Tony Collins, head of Clarkson University and co-chair of the North Country Regional Economic Development Council has talked up the opportunities of a sort of local energy movement.

“I know there are projects in the pipeline that rely on energy and utilize natural resources, the forest reserves, forest products,” Collins told me recently.

This same idea has been a steady theme for Kate Fish, head of the Adirondack North Country Association.

As the region talks about and debates a unified theme for our shared economic future, energy seems like an interesting angle to explore.

After all, our communities are already industry leaders in hydro and wind power.  Watertown has a chain of power generating dams right in the middle of the city.  Big hydro facilities on the St. Lawrence River are cornerstones of the regional economy.

The Tug Hill and Clinton County have seen sizable wind farms kicking into gear.

What if rural towns and small cities also became major exporters of wood pellets for stoves and producers of electricity at biomass facilities?

Is it impossible to think that this region could become a next exporter of energy in the next decade?

One big and necessary step would involve a massive effort to improve the efficiency of North Country homes, so that we consume far less heating oil in the winter.

An expansion of public transportation and the adoption of more energy-efficient vehicles would also help.

Remember, every gallon of oil that we avoid burning means more money staying here in our economy.

The Wildlife Conservation Society’s Jerry Jenkins has also been writing and thinking about the opportunities (and the challenges) of this kind of transition.

His latest book gives a fascinating portrait of the energy economy in a rural region like ours.

The short term benefits, in terms of jobs developed and products exported, seem worth exploring.

But it’s also reasonable to imagine a future where the rest of the US suffers big energy shocks, shortages, and price spikes, while the North Country controls more of its own destiny.

So what do you think?  Would you rather see your warmth this summer come from a local pellet plant, rather than a big oil company?

Are you skeptical that wind, hydro and biomass can really fuel a vibrant economy?  Comments welcome.

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9 Comments on “Could energy be the North Country’s next big thing?”

  1. dbw says:

    Brian, the North Country’s emerging energy economy is already here. In addition to things you mentioned grass pellets from unused open land is also a possibility. The best use for all these energy sources is to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and Canadian natural gas. Keeping those energy dollars in the region would have an economic development benefit. We would also make gains by serious energy conservation measures, that is,fewer of our dollars leaving the region. CDP in Canton has a waiting list of 1000 for home weatherization. There is a real urgency to moving all this forward. Our own military predicts a possible shortfall in oil production of 10 million barrels a day by 2015. For the region’s poor, energy issues are already here. With all the HEAP cuts this winter, there is a real risk of people freezing in their beds. Energy projects with their broad application across the whole region should be priorities for the North Country Regional Economic Development Council.

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  2. If Clapton is God, Warren Haynes is Jesus says:

    Not only is conservation key, but encouraging residential energy production via the “Feed in Tariff” process rather than the utility friendly “Net Metering” process would be a step in the right direction. Other nations and states and communities right here in the US have already moved to this concept. With the ever diminishing cost of solar and micro-wind turbines, and with the right incentives, homeowners could be a big part of the North Country energy mix. Save and even make money in the process, and help with local job creation.

    And yes, we absolutely should be producing more wood, grass and other biomass pellets right here in the North Country. We should also be manufacturing the actual stoves and there accessories here as well. Seems to me we have the brain power and enough abandoned manufacturing facilities to make such a venture work.

    I’ve owned a pellet stove for years and am now in the process of researching new models for an upgrade. There’s absolutely no reason why we can’t be building a quality pellet stove or pellet boiler on par with the top brands like Harman, or Quadrafire, or Enviro, etc. here in the North Country as opposed to Washington State or China.

    If we could tap our energy creation potential as well as our ability to grow foodstuffs, including value added agriculture products, we could see a resurgence in manufacturing here in the North Country.

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  3. Jon Montan says:

    Hi Brian,

    From the The Globe & Mail, 28 June 2008:

    The energy content of 1 barrel of oil = the energy content of 8.6 years of human labor.
    A human lifespan could produce the energy of about 3 barrels of oil in usable work or impact on the world (@ 10 h of work per day).

    My comment: We have just passed the 7 billion person mark worldwide, and climbing. If we as a species do not come up with environmentally-acceptable alternatives for our addiction to fossil fuels, we will have a lot more to be concerned about than the economic development of the North Country.

    We can and must, in my opinion, do our part locally to help face this challenge.

    A report: Heating the Northeast with Renewable Biomass - A Vision for 2025 that can be viewed at:  http://www.forgreenheat.org/heatne_vision_full.pdf estimated that meeting the goal of providing 18.5% of the heating load in the Northeast by 2025 with renewable biomass would result in (just New York State) of 75,740 permanent biomass thermal jobs and would generate income statewide (at an average annual pay of $53,587) of $2,528,033,543.

    Think of the impact that could have on our area!

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  4. Pete Klein says:

    Every little bit helps but I don’t see biomass providing a MAJOR economic boost to the region. Ditto for solar and wind.

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  5. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Biomass has been the traditional fuel source for the region. Remember when everyone knew that “time to log-on” meant the fire was getting low?

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  6. Ward Wilbur says:

    First:efficiency.
    Insulate, caulk, replace windows/doors.
    Second:: move away from heating oil.
    These are the best $ values and simplest steps.
    Question: with global warming will we lose year round water flow in our streams and rivers?
    This could affect the long term hydro power outlook.

    I’m not against burning wood, I do, but I think the science shows that this is a net loss with the warming (co2) problem.

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  7. erb says:

    @Ward Wilbur- Wood is actually a carbon neutral fuel. Trees absorb CO2 during their growth, and release it through natural decomposition after they die. Burning the wood simply releases the CO2 more quickly, but the overall total is not really altered.

    We also heat with wood, and my main concern is particulate pollution in the atmosphere. Wood smoke can be pretty dirty, especially if there is incomplete combustion.

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  8. Walker says:

    Erb, you could argue that oil is a carbon-neutral fuel– its carbon sequestration phase is just running on a longer timeline than most.

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  9. erb says:

    @Walker – the analogy doesn’t work, because new trees are continually taking up CO2. No CO2 is currently being sequestered by the oil reserves.

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