“Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves… that / By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make… you whose pastime / Is to make midnight mushrooms… .”
I first read that passage from The Tempest (Act V, Sc. I) decades ago. I still get goosebumps when I read it today. It is not just that it occurs in the midst of the most profoundly optimistic and counter-instinctual juncture in Shakespeare, but it also brings to life the sheer, sometimes unsettling, magic of the woods by moonlight. Olden-day folklore had it that mushrooms, many of which materialize overnight, are made by elves. Incorrect perhaps, unless you consider the fungal mycelia, which send up the fruiting bodies we call mushrooms, to be elves. Still, it is a beautiful and fitting explanation. Mushrooms are so mysterious and seemingly unlike us humans that any explanation of their behaviour almost begs for something exotic and otherworldly. But humans and fungi are, on the Tree of Life, close neighbours on the same major branch, taxonomically speaking: we are not only fellow Eukaryotes but fellow Opisthokonts as well. More to the point of what I cover in this blog, we both produce as part of our natural functioning carbon dioxide (CO2), an important greenhouse gas in the planet’s atmosphere. This is because we both oxidize carbon as our basic metabolic activity. But humans also produce CO2 by burning carbonaceous fuel, for heat and electric power. Some of that fuel is wood—which, for many mushrooms, is food.
I had an interesting discussion with someone at an energy conservation event a few days ago. We discussed whether the CO2 from wood-fired power and heat generation should be categorized as carbon-neutral. My interlocutor argued that it is carbon-neutral; if it isn’t, then all the research and work into developing algae-based biofuels is wasted.
My position is that wood-fired power and heat generation is not carbon-neutral. It is an anthropogenic activity, and therefore the CO2 it produces is anthropogenic. Yes, dead wood will eventually turn into CO2 anyway—fungi worldwide, like the Hemlock Varnish Shelf in the photo above, put eighty billion tons of it into the atmosphere every year as the result of direct wood consumption or symbiosis with living trees and plants. But that is part of the natural carbon cycle. Us burning it is not. Whatever goes into the atmosphere right now, natural or anthropogenic, is increasing the CO2 concentration in air; see Item A1 at the top left. If we burn it, then fungi can’t eat it, it’s that simple. Therefore, the CO2 from wood combustion is anthropogenic.
Why is Ontario deliberately making electricity so expensive that its rural residents are forced to switch to wood, the dirtiest and most carbon-intensive—and labour-intensive—fuel? This is directly contrary to the philosophy that underpinned the First and Second Electrifications of our great province.
The discussion came up after I described two people I know, one of whom lives in rural Ontario, the other in rural Quebec. Both have wood-fired central heating distribution systems that heat their houses and other buildings on their properties. One, the guy who lives in Ontario, only recently installed his system. He did so because electricity prices where he lives are so high that electric space heating is no longer affordable. The guy in Quebec (who recently passed away, R.I.P.) had recently decommissioned his wood-fired system in favour of electric heat—the province of Quebec has long had a policy of providing cheap electricity to its citizens.
I argued that the Quebec case is how Ontario should be. Our power should be as it was designed by the father of our electric grid, Sir Adam Beck, to be: cheap, abundant, and everywhere. I would only add “clean” to Beck’s criteria.
Electricity in both Ontario and Quebec is, currently, extremely clean. Quebec’s grid CIPK is somewhere around 2 grams (see Environment Canada’s “National Inventory Report 1990-2009, Part 3,” Table A13-6); Ontario’s, according to my automated real-time calculation in Table A1 on the left was 42 grams at seven a.m. this morning (November 25). Yes, Ontario’s grid CIPK is several times higher than Quebec’s, but if we were our own country we would get an easy buy into Group 100 of the World Cup of Carbon (see the table at the very bottom of that article).
Why is Ontario deliberately making electricity so expensive that its rural residents are forced to switch to wood, the dirtiest and most carbon-intensive fuel? This is directly contrary to the philosophy that underpinned the First and Second Electrifications of our great province. In those drives, electricity was seen as a public good. The grid was brought to rural Ontario by electricity revenues from urban rate-payers; that was the only way the economics could work. Today, it’s just the reverse. Electricity is priced so that urbanites get the cheapest rates; rural residents can freeze in the dark or switch to less expensive fuels like wood.
Which puts humans in direct competition with mushrooms for all that wood.
This shouldn’t be happening. And people who fancy themselves conservationists should not be supporting it. The natural division of labour has fungi, not humans, disposing of wood. Nature has reserved for us humans a fuel of infinite superiority: uranium. Uranium releases many millions of times the energy of fossil fuels that are themselves far more powerful than wood. For example, methane, the main ingredient in natural gas, releases on combustion 810,000 Joules of energy per mole; that works out to about 8.39 electronvolts per reaction at the molecular scale (an electronvolt is 1.602176565 x 10-19 Joules). Uranium-235 on the other hand releases around 200 million electronvolts per fission (exactly how many electronvolts per fission depends on which elements each U-235 atom splits into). Those 200 MeV come with absolutely no CO2.
The sheer superiority of uranium relative to even the most powerful fossil fuels is an extremely recent discovery. This discovery, in 1939, was part of the breathtaking scientific revolution that occurred in lock-step with the Second Industrial Revolution. In fact, it was in part because of the wide availability of reliable electric lighting, which was perhaps the hallmark of the Second Industrial Revolution, that scientific discovery exploded so dramatically after the late 1800s.
Nature revealed to us, in 1939, her secret store of clean energy. Our use of uranium and other fissile elements as the replacement of carbon-heavy fuels will be our measure as a species.