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Utilities Commission Says Burning Trees Is 'Green'

The North Carolina Utilities Commission ruled Monday that cutting down and burning trees counts as renewable energy. State regulators have decided that trees are more "green" than you might think. And that's good news for Duke Energy, since it and other power companies are under pressure to be making 12.5 percent of their electricity from renewable sources within a decade. That's a state law. Compared to solar and wind power, Duke Energy spokesman Jason Walls says burning what's known as "biomass" is a cheaper way to go. But, when Duke went looking for waste wood to use in electric generation, Walls says "there's simply not enough to meet the need for renewable energy in the state." Enter Duke Energy's plan to use whole trees harvested from North Carolina forests. Environmental groups protested, saying that's not what the legislature had in mind when it wrote the renewable energy requirement. Now that the Utilities Commission has given Duke a green light to use trees, environmental groups say lawmakers need to put some parameters in place. "To make sure that we're not overharvesting and that the unintended consequences of renewable energy development don't outweigh the positives," says Gudrun Thompson, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. As it stands, there's little to stop power companies in North Carolina from clear cutting forests in the name of "green" energy. But Thompson says that's an unlikely extreme. With the right rules in place, the Southern Environmental Law Center supports the use of wood in power plants as a transition away from coal. Walls says Duke Energy is committed to get wood for its power plants in a "reasonable and environmentally sustainable" way.