Clearing the air about biomass

Posted by Dylan Kruse on April 25, 2014

In response to a recent report claiming biomass power is worse than coal, we offer a broader perspective.

Without a market for restoration by-products, slash piles like these are openly burned in the forest. Photo by Marcus Kauffman.

In 'Trees, Trash, and Toxics: How Biomass Energy Has Become the New Coal,' the Partnership for Policy Integrity claims biomass power plants are avoiding regulation and threatening air quality. While we agree these plants should not burn contaminated fuel and should achieve the highest possible efficiency, this report paints a narrow and short-sighted picture of a diverse renewable energy resource with broader application and multiple benefits to the environment, and rural economies and communities.

The author, Mary S. Booth, argues biomass for electricity generation alone is inefficient, which is true to an extent. What she fails to report is heat or "thermal energy" is one-third of our nation's energy demand, and biomass used in combined heat and power systems and for stand-alone heat generation can be up to 90% efficient. She calls out one power-only generation plant in Oregon but does not review the 19 EPA-approved biomass boilers that have replaced oil-fueled boilers and instead use by-products from forest restoration and milling residuals to heat schools, hospitals, and businesses, at a savings of over $100,000 annually.

Utilization of woody biomass is an essential component of a necessary forest restoration system. Millions of acres of forest land are overcrowded and are being increasingly devastated by wildfires that damage wildlife habitat and watersheds, and emit hundreds of millions of tons of greenhouse gases and particulate matter, and cost taxpayers billions of dollars on suppression efforts. Oregon Department of Forestry data from 1980 to 2000 shows wildfires in eastern Oregon burned approximately 553,000 acres, with an average size of 26,000 acres. From 2001 to 2011, wildfires burned one million acres, averaging 93,000 acres per fire.

Restoration is addressing the forest health problem, however if local markets for the thinnings and small diameter wood are unavailable, biomass is either piled and burned on site, producing significant smoke, particulates, and greenhouse gases, with no pollution controls, whatsoever; is left on site but not burned, where it decomposes and releases greenhouse gases at a slower rate, if it is not caught in a wildfire; or it is burned in wood products facilities to power on-site operations.

Either by wildfire, decomposition, or human use, emissions from woody biomass will occur. We are therefore left with a choice. We can accept the status quo, or we can put this resource to a higher use, for job creation (every 100,000 tons of wood used for energy supports 342 jobs in the wood products and transportation sectors), energy savings, and a net reduction in greenhouse gases. It scientific fact that carbon emitted and sequestered as part of a natural cycle is inherently different than carbon emitted from fossil fuels, which would have remain sequestered if not extracted.  

When opponents of biomass make narrow and misleading claims about a complex and diverse resource, it broadly stigmatizes all biomass applications, ignores the benefits, and damages avenues for new systems that work cleaner and more efficiently than mainstream fossil fuels. This report is literally and figuratively missing the forest for the trees.