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Woody Biomass - Who Is Really Opposed?
By Barbara Coyner
Alternative energy and green energy get a lot of airtime. “Solar power” and “wind power” tumble out of the mouths of everyone from our president to college students polishing their skills as the next breed of environmental activists. Often missing from the list of green energy is “woody biomass power.” Yet as wildfires ravage bug-killed forests, and firefighting expenses bloat our national budgets, is it wrong to ask for a balanced, rational discussion regarding the links between overstocked forests and renewable energy potential?
Union of Concerned Scientists
It’s no surprise that timber related websites already make the case for woody biomass energy. And college campuses don’t mind taking a few bucks for woody biomass research. But it might come as something of a surprise to learn that the Union of Concerned Scientists has a reasonable discussion of woody biomass energy posted on its website. Given the group’s firm stance that climate change is human caused, it seems predictable that the organization would firmly oppose woody biomass power. But read on:
To many people, the most familiar forms of renewable energy are the wind and the sun. But biomass (plant material and animal waste) is the oldest source of renewable energy, used since our ancestors learned the secret of fire. Until recently, biomass supplied far more renewable electricity—or “biopower”—than wind and solar power combined. If developed properly, biomass can and should supply increasing amounts of biopower. In fact, in numerous analyses of how America can transition to a clean energy future, sustainable biomass is a critical renewable resource.
It is important to look at websites such as this to see how people in the “human-caused climate change” camp actually regard woody biomass. Some more excerpts:
But like all our energy sources, biopower has environmental risks that need to be mitigated. If not managed carefully, biomass for energy can be harvested at unsustainable rates, damage ecosystems, produce harmful air pollution, consume large amounts of water, and produce net greenhouse emissions.
Answers for the Concerned
Most who work in the timber industry can, or should, have some ready answers to the above list of concerns. Harvesting at an unsustainable rate has long been a worry and not merely to environmentalists. Many loggers regard sustainability and ecosystem viability as key to their personal job security. On the other hand, letting timber build up as fuel for potential mega fires is equally irresponsible because such fires contribute to harmful air pollution, damage ecosystems, and in some instances, do irreparable harm to soil conditions.
Most timber industry people are well rehearsed on the greenhouse gas emission tradeoffs. Old dying trees give off greenhouse gases, as do wildfires, so harvesting trees responsibly can lead to favorable carbon trade-offs.
As for water use in creating woody biomass power, much depends on whether the system is simply thermal or more complex, such as the processes employed in deriving cellulosic ethanol from biomass. Some of the biofuels show promise but do, indeed, require more water. The Union of Concerned Scientists summarizes its case as follows:
… most scientists believe there is a wide range of biomass resources that can be produced sustainably and with minimal harm, while reducing the overall impacts and risks of our current energy system. Implementing proper policy is essential to securing the benefits of biomass and avoiding its risks.
For a deeper look at the Union of Concerned Scientists, visit the website at http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/our-energy-choices/renewable-energy/how-biomass-energy-works.html.
Sierra Club Weighs in
Meanwhile, here is another view of woody biomass power, this time from a Sierra Club perspective. The article begins...
Biomass Burning: When Renewable Energy Isn’t Renewable There are lots of things you can burn to make electricity: coal, gas, oil, trash, old tires — and our forests…
Essentially this article is a recap of a pro and con public meeting between a proposed woody biomass plant in Missouri and a New England pediatrician concerned about air pollution. Here is a sampling of author Henry Robertson’s running commentary:
Biomass is generally regarded as a renewable energy source, one answer to global warming. There’s no one silver bullet solution to climate change. Instead there’s “silver buckshot,” and environmentalists find many kinds of renewable energy to support (and oppose — even wind and solar projects)…
Is it worth it? Biomass burning claims to have advantages over old ways of doing business. It creates energy, keeps sawmill waste and urban wood waste out of landfills, and removes forest thinnings that clog up the woods, slowing regeneration and posing a fire hazard…
Greenwashing — the claim that some technology or business practice is “green” even though it isn’t — is a hazard we must constantly be on the alert for. It looks like that’s what we have in the case of biomass combustion for electricity. It isn’t green, renewable, or sustainable.
As I drive through a neighboring community with its new wind farm, I watch the giant turbines turn lazily in the breeze, knowing they have a projected life span of 30 years. At that time, the company will either install new turbines or shut down. Is this also the plan of various other wind farms?
While much is made of the carbon trade-offs required to get woody biomass from the forest to the power plant, nobody adds in the cost of dismantling wind turbines, manufacturing new ones, and hauling them long distances for installation. A curious question remains: what makes this type of green energy more sustainable than woody biomass and worthy of more avid promotion and generous subsidies from our leaders?
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