Big Bad Biomass

Just because it’s renewable doesn’t make it clean

Back Web Only Jul 16, 2015 By Alastair Bland

As California looks for ways to reduce its carbon footprint and help curb climate change, environmental activists are questioning the integrity of the biomass industry, which burns millions of tons of woody plant matter each year to help power the state’s electric grid.   

Plant matter and wood waste represent a step forward in an age needy of clean and renewable energy sources, according to biomass industry leaders. They insist that burning biomass is a carbon neutral activity, meaning it causes no net growth of the atmospheric carbon load. This, they say, is because trees grow back, sequestering carbon as they do and thereby offsetting the CO2 emissions from biomass power plants.  

But many environmental activists argue that biomass has been credited as carbon neutral through mathematical errors that have influenced renewable energy incentive programs. In February, several dozen scientists signed a letter written to the Environmental Protection Agency in response to the government’s support of biomass energy. The authors warned the agency that it had made serious calculation errors in crediting woody biomass as a carbon-neutral fuel source — errors that are likely to be repeated in other nations unless corrected now. According to the authors, meeting just 4 percent of the nation’s energy needs with biomass would require burning 70 percent of the timber currently harvested in the United States. In other words, this tiny gain in energy supply would require almost doubling the nation’s timber harvest.

Kevin Bundy, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, says biomass received the carbon neutral stamp of approval last decade. In 2002, he says, the state introduced a program called the Renewable Portfolio Standard, which requires energy providers to increase reliance on renewable energy resources to one-third of total procurement by 2020. Biomass, Bundy explains, was included as an option in the Renewable Portfolio Standard. Later, in 2006, state legislation was passed calling for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 via clean energy development. But that law — Assembly Bill 32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act — used the Renewable Portfolio Standard as a guideline and in doing so made a serious flub, according to Bundy.

“They assumed that any [energy source that is] renewable had a low carbon footprint,” he explains. “Now, because biomass is renewable, it gets lumped in with [wind, sun and water].”

Princeton researcher Tim Searchinger, who signed the February letter to the EPA, says such carbon accounting errors have by now been institutionalized as fact and written into policies worldwide aimed at mitigating climate change. As a result, Searchinger warns, the biomass industry is enjoying subsidies and regulatory exemptions that could drive global deforestation and fuel climate change.

For more on the biomass industry, check out Alastair Bland’s July feature, “Burn Notice.” 


Sten Hakanson (not verified)July 18, 2015 - 6:36am

There certainly is no question that cutting down our forests to supply us with electrical power makes no sense, but clearly carbon contained in wood is not adding to the total amount of carbon in the biosphere in the same way carbon that has been sequestered for millions of years does when released back into that biosphere circulation by the burning of fossil fuels. Thus, the argument against using wood is not so much one of carbon neutrality or not, but that it is simply not feasible. That said, we do have waste wood as a by-product of the lumber industry and to a lesser degree from construction and demolition activities. This wood needs to be dealt with in some fashion by turning it into mulch or in some cases burning it for power, but clearly we cannot rely on wood as a source of power in the sense of clear cutting forests solely for that purpose. What we should be doing is planting more trees and letting them grow and extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Electricity from solar, wind, hydro-power and geothermal makes much more sense. However, as a primary "always on" electrical power source we have to move towards Thorium based nuclear power. Advantages; little or no fissile (bomb) byproducts, no "China Syndrome" melt-downs if something tragic happens, no explosive hydrogen, and the waste that is generated has very fast half-lives - on the order of a couple of years. Thus, this waste can be stored onsite for twenty years and then be very safely moved to a permanent storage facility where in a hundred years its radioactivity levels would be extremely low. And we have more Thorium than Uranium to the extent that it could provide us with power for thousands of years and not leave us with a waste legacy lasting thousands of years. Hopefully though, we will harness fusion power or some other as yet unknown safe power production means well before then.

Mike Ammann (not verified)July 24, 2015 - 3:09pm

There are no clean fuel alternatives. Energy requires combustion. Yes, the sun does burn to produce sunlight that can be converted to electricity. Better to burn waste wood in a "clean" power plant than open burning which was the method in the past on Central Valley farms and ranches.