Matera: Burning more wood is for cavemen

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Chris Matera, a civil engineer and the founder of Massachusetts Forest Watch, a citizen watchdog group.

We need to get serious about global warming and clean energy, but the latest science shows that wood burning biomass is a false solution, which will worsen our problems, not help solve them.

While the word “biomass” may conjure up pleasant images, the promotion of this old caveman technology as “clean and green” is a colossal “greenwash” by the timber and energy industries attempting to cash in on lucrative public subsidies.

One can become quite cynical to learn that our “green” energy subsidies are being directed to cutting forests and burning them in dirty biomass incinerators instead of promoting genuinely clean energy solutions such as solar, geothermal, appropriately scaled and located wind and hydro, and most importantly conservation and efficiency.

Here is a biomass reality check:

Contrary to industry claims, biomass energy does not reduce carbon dioxide emissions, it increases them. Wood-burning biomass power production emits 50 percent more carbon dioxide per unit of energy than coal. That is not a typo, and is based on numbers from the proponents own reports. Since burning wood is so inefficient, burning living trees is actually worse than burning coal. Brand new electric biomass power plants emit about 3,300 lbs. of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour, while existing coal plants emit 2,100 lbs. of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour, existing natural gas plants about 1,300 lbs of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour and new natural gas plants about 760 lbs of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour. See: www.maforests.org/MFWCarb.pdf

There is no reasonable argument for forcing taxpayers to subsidize the construction of new dirty, carbon belching, forest degrading biomass incinerators, for minimal amounts of power that we don’t need, in order to further enrich already wealthy out-of-state investors.

Not only is wood-burning biomass energy worse than fossil fuels for carbon dioxide emissions, but it also usually emits higher rates of conventional pollutants such as particulates, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, and volatile organic compounds than fossil fuels. The McNeil biomass plant near Burlington, and touted by biomass proponents, is the No. 1 air-pollution source in the state of Vermont and emits 79 pollutants. See: www.planethazard.com In short, “clean” energy does not come out of a smokestack.

Wood burning energy production is extremely inefficient, a typical power plant burns at about 23 percent efficiency, so 77 percent of the trees cut go up in smoke and without producing any energy. This means enormous amounts of forest need to be cut to provide tiny amounts of power. This large fuel demand will lead to increased clearcutting of forests which even the forestry consultant to the Pownal and Fairhaven biomass proposals has admitted.

It is very important to realize that the vast majority of the fuel for the biomass energy would come from living trees, not “waste” wood as pitched to the public. The industry includes trees that they call “junk” or “low grade” in their definition of “waste” and “residues” simply because they are a species, or have characteristics, that do not provide high commercial market value. However, to the rest of us, and to nature, these are important trees that filter the air and water, sequester carbon, maintain the soil, attract tourists, and provide fish and wildlife habitat.

The proposed Fair Haven, Vermont facility alone would require nearly 600,000 green tons of wood per year for electric and pellets. This is about 40 percent of the entire public and private annual timber harvest in Vermont and yet would produce only about 1 percent more energy (heat and electric) for Vermont. There are also other large biomass burning proposals in Pownal and Springfield, Vermont, as well as Pittsfield, Greenfield, Russell, and Springfield, Mass., that all have overlapping wood demands which would require cutting forests at more than 300 percent of today’s cutting rates and would seriously threaten our important and beautiful forests.

Instead of radically increasing forest cutting and burning for 1 percent to 2 percent more energy, achievable and more economical conservation and efficiency measures could reduce our energy use by 30 percent. “Phantom” loads alone, for example when our TV is plugged in but not on, account for 5 percent of our electric use and could easily be avoided by using power strips. While making better use of the energy we already have would have the least impacts, the damage is already done with Hydro Quebec, so utilizing this available energy source would have minimal new impacts in comparison to increased cutting and burning of our important forests.

The reason these biomass incinerator proposals are popping up like mushrooms on a rainy Seattle day is because of the enormous public subsidies being directed their way. A typical 50 MW wood burning energy facility is eligible for an $80 million dollar federal cash grant and about $25 million dollars in annual public subsidies. Imagine all the genuinely clean jobs and energy that could instead be created with that money by installing solar panels and insulating homes. Rather than 25 to 50 or so destructive jobs cutting and burning forests, the $25 million dollar annual subsidy alone could instead be used to support 500 clean and green jobs at $50,000 per year.

In summary, at this time of polluted air, global warming, already stressed forests and bankrupt governments, there is no reasonable argument for forcing taxpayers to subsidize the construction of new dirty, carbon belching, forest degrading biomass incinerators, for minimal amounts of power that we don’t need, in order to further enrich already wealthy out of state investors.

These policies will lead to increased clearcutting, air pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions while simultaneously draining our public coffers, the exact opposite of what we need to be doing right now.

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  • Biomass-for-power, read wood-for-power, proponents usually do not mention one critical item: the dead trees and branches and leaves and the insects and other critters all decay to produce nutrients for the remaining and new trees.

    That is how top soil is created and how a forest keeps itself alive. It takes about 300-500 years to NATURALLY create one inch of top soil; quicker in the tropics, slower further north. The topsoil New England has to-day was created during the past 8,000 years, after the ice receded.

    About 300-600 years is required for a full renewal cycle of a tree from birth to full decay, depending on the average life of a tree.

    When you take away the potential nutrients, the forest will “starve”. For that reason one can safely harvest about 0.5 cords per acre from a HEALTHY forest, per US NPS.

    Much of the forests in New England are under great stress, mostly due to acid rain, and sickly, per US NPS.
    Sick forests are best left alone until they are healthy again.

    The above statements were verified with a forester of the National Park Service in Woodstock, VT

  • dan osgood sr

    ya? well ya know,being on a fixed income i’d rather be called a cave man than pay the high prises of oil, or anything else. buring wood is a renewable resourse, and it dosen’t mean cut trees 200-300 yrs old as you say, i’d bet that you are one of those that complain about renewable elictrcal power as will from canada, as well as wind power, while oil and coal fired genarators do more damage than every other sourse commbined, and give us in the northeast acid rain that has put mercury in our rivers so that we can’t even eat native trout or other fish and has kill high mt top trees. what about them. so put that in your hat and smoke…

  • Thanks, Mr. Matera, for laying out the issue so clearly. Finally, the public, lawmakers, and environmental groups are realizing that burning stuff for energy got us into this climate change mess, and burning sure as heck isn’t going to get us out.

    What I find amusing is how anyone opposed to cutting more forests for electricity is somehow considered a “radical.” Aren’t, instead, the folks who want to greatly expand biomass power incineration–rather than those who want merely to keep things as they are–the real “radicals” here?

  • Kraig Richard

    Does this mean Burlington’s McNeil is worse than a coal burning plant? I thought their wood gasification was efficiant and they had pollution control?

    • Doug Hoffer

      No. A coal plant the size of McNeil would produce approximately 162,000 tons of CO2, SO2, NOx, and particulates. McNeil produces about 14,000 tons.

      Because McNeil only uses wood that was slated to be cut anyway, it is rightfully considered CO2 neutral.

      And yes, McNeil has significant pollution control equipment. Indeed, BED just installed new NOx emissions control technology.

      The author of this post will tell you that McNeil is the largest point source of air pollution in the state. But that’s like making a big deal out the fact that the Burlington Housing Authority building downtown has the highest elevator in the state. Pretty low bar.

      • I’m sorry, Mr. Hoffer, but you are incorrect. What are you basing your data on, if I may ask?

        The biomass industry, including McNeil foresters (ask Bill Kropelin) admit they cut small trees, crooked trees, and other less “commercially viable” trees to burn in their incinerator.

        Even the biomass industry is backing away from the “carbon neutral” argument, and I’m surprised to hear you say that.

        “A critical conclusion of the report (Washington State DNR) is that biomass of all kinds, including harvested trees that would otherwise remain standing, should be treated as a “carbon neutral” fuel, an assumption the authors ascribe to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). However this conclusion is based on a misinterpretation of IPCC accounting, and is inconsistent with the best science of forest carbon accounting.”

        -Mark Harmon, Richardson Chair and Professor in Forest Science, Oregon State University; Timothy Searchinger, Research Scholar and Lecturer Princeton University; William Moomaw, Professor of International Environmental Policy, Tufts University and IPCC member (Feb 2,2011 letter to members of Washington State Leg.)

        ***

        And here’s EPA’s 2002 numbers for McNeil–(the most recent National Emission Inventory Database). The NOx numbers might be lower since they installed scrubber for that.

        http://planethazard.com/phmapenv.aspx?mode=topten&area=state&state=VT

        Total Emissions 2,096,495.23 (in pounds per year)
        Carbon Monoxide 1,265,900.05
        Nitrogen Oxides 460,200.00
        Primary PM10 (Includes Filterables + Condensibles) 59,503.40
        Primary PM2.5 (Includes Filterables + Condensibles) 58,028.40
        Hydrochloric Acid 48,400.29
        Primary PM Condensible Portion Only (All Less Than 1 Micron) 48,067.40
        Volatile Organic Compounds 35,600.00
        Ammonia 22,102.00
        Primary PM, Filterable Portion Only 16,240.00
        Primary PM10, Filterable Portion Only 11,436.00
        Formaldehyde 11,208.49
        Sulfur Dioxide 10,800.00
        Benzene 10,699.01
        Acrolein 10,189.54
        Primary PM2.5, Filterable Portion Only 9,961.00
        Styrene 4,840.03
        Manganese 4,075.81
        Toluene 2,343.59
        Acetaldehyde 2,114.33
        Chlorine 2,012.43
        Methylene Chloride 738.74
        Naphthalene 247.10
        Propionaldehyde 155.39
        Phenol 129.92
        Lead 122.27
        Carbon Tetrachloride 114.63
        Tetrachloroethylene 96.80
        Chlorobenzene 84.06
        Nickel 84.06
        Propylene Dichloride 84.06
        Methyl Chloroform 78.97
        Ethyl Benzene 78.97
        Trichloroethylene 76.42
        Ethylene Dichloride 73.87
        Chloroform 71.33
        Phosphorus 68.78
        o-Xylene 63.68
        Methyl Chloride 58.59
        Arsenic 56.04
        Chromium 53.50
        Vinyl Chloride 45.85
        Methyl Bromide 38.21
        Antimony 20.12
        Phenanthrene 17.83
        Cobalt 16.56
        Methyl Ethyl Ketone 13.76
        Acenaphthylene 12.74
        Cadmium 10.44
        Pyrene 9.43
        Chromium (VI) 8.92
        Fluorene 8.66
        Anthracene 7.64
        Selenium 7.13
        Benzo[a]Pyrene 6.62
        Hexachlorodibenzo-p-Dioxin 4.08
        Beryllium 2.80
        Acenaphthene 2.32
        2,4-Dinitrophenol 0.46
        2-Methylnaphthalene 0.41
        Fluoranthene 0.41
        4-Nitrophenol 0.28
        Benzo[b]Fluoranthene 0.25
        Benzo[g,h,i,]Perylene 0.24
        Indeno[1,2,3-c,d]Pyrene 0.22
        Octachlorodibenzo-p-Dioxin 0.17
        Benz[a]Anthracene 0.17
        Pentachlorophenol 0.13
        Bis(2-Ethylhexyl)Phthalate 0.12
        Chrysene 0.10
        Benzo[k]Fluoranthene 0.09
        2,4,6-Trichlorophenol 0.06
        Dibenzo[a,h]Anthracene 0.02
        Acetophenone 0.01
        Benzo[e]Pyrene 0.01
        2-Chloronaphthalene 0.01
        Perylene 0.00
        2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzofuran 0.00
        Octachlorodibenzofuran 0.00
        2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-Dioxin

    • They don’t have an operating gasifier. They built it, tested it, and abandoned it.

    • Kraig,

      Yes, McNeil emits more CO2 per unit of energy produced than an existing coal plant.

      The numbers Doug’s cites are Burlington Electric Departments own PR puff numbers which count the carbon dioxide for coal, but completely disregard it for tree burning at McNeil, magically calling it “carbon-neutral” which has been completely debunked scientifically. McNeil acknowledges that they get 70% of their wood from trees.

      Since the largest emission from these power plants by far is carbon dioxide, if the carbon dioxide were counted, as it should be, the real emission numbers for McNeil are at least 400,000 tons, not 14,000 tons.

      Burning trees is 50% worse than burning coal for carbon dioxide emissions per unit of energy produced.

      We went through this debate earlier on a Digger thread, see the comment thread here:
      http://vtdigger.wpengine.com/2011/02/27/kirby-getting-at-the-%E2%80%9Cwhole%E2%80%9D-truth-on-biomass/

      To repeat, based on the developer’s own reports, biomass power plants emit about 50% more carbon dioxide than coal plants. New biomass power plants emit about 3,300 pounds per megawatt hour, while existing coal plants emit 2,100 pounds per megawatt hour and new natural gas plants emit 760 pounds per megawatt hour.

      A recent letter from 90 eminent scientists asks congress not to “cook the books’ when accounting for CO2 from bio-energy stating “clearing or cutting forests for energy, either to burn trees directly in power plants or to replace forests with bio-energy crops, has the net effect of releasing otherwise sequestered carbon into the atmosphere, just like the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. That creates a carbon debt, may reduce ongoing carbon uptake by the forest, and as a result may increase net greenhouse gas emissions for an extended time period and thereby undercut greenhouse gas reductions needed over the next several decades” See: http://216.250.243.12/90scientistsletter.pdf

      Even under unrealistic ideal theoretical conditions (that are unlikely to occur on the ground), the biomass carbon debt payback takes many decades to centuries. The recently released “Manomet” study, which used biomass friendly modeling assumptions, (see: http://www.catf.us/resources/whitepapers/files/201007-Review_of_the_Manomet_Biomass_Sustainability_and_Carbon_Policy_Study.pdf) demonstrated that life cycle carbon dioxide emissions in tree burning biomass electric facilities are worse than coal for 45-75 years and worse than natural gas for at least a century. See this report from NPR: http://www.wbur.org/2010/06/11/wood-power-plants and
      http://www.cleanenergystates.org/JointProjects/RPS/Biomass/Walker_Biomass_RPS.pdf

      Regarding clearcutting, Vermont actually has very weak standards. A landowner may clearcut 40 acres (equal to 40 football fields) without any trouble and can clearcut even more than that by filing an impact statement.

      Thanks

      Chris

  • Michael Gardner

    Good Grief! When will the lunacy end? Vermont has strict controls on clear cuts, and forest management. If you are under current use the rules are even more stringent. There is no situation that would turn Vermont into any sort of forest wasteland. If we’re all pretending to be adults here why don’t we start by having a rational conversation. There have been studies done (over 70 years) at the maple research facilities in NH that have shown no statistical difference in soil nutrition between whole tree harvesting and traditional forestry practices. Over the very long term (1,000 years) we obviously don’t know the answer.

    We have three choices. Reduce consumption of all energy, the status quo, or explore alternatives.

    Personally I’d like to see everyone explore their own alternatives and eliminate subsidies for all power production. No more cow power or above market payments for clean energy, no more nuke subsidies, no more biomass subsidies, no more ethanol, etc. Only after we know what stands on its own can we make a truly informed opinion.

    I am personally willing to pay more for energy produced without Saudi oil, not everyone is and they should be given that choice.

  • Sorry folks, but you all seem to be missing a major point here that NOBODY is talking about. Burning wood for home heating can be carbon neutral when done properly, and in fact is how Permaculturists have suggested using wood.

    The chemicals released by a “bio-mass” plant come from fuel that is not 100% organic and therefore should NOT be considered “bio-mass.” Unless you are using coppiced wood which was harvested properly (ie with human labor and NOT an electric or gas powered chainsaw) then you can’t be 100% “bio-mass.”

    Which is why we should be investing in solar technology to power the nation with organic firewood being used as a secondary heating source – especially in climates that are further north or south (depending on geographic location to the equator).

    And yes, the production of solar panels requires the initial use of non-renewable energy which is why it is so important to INVEST in developing a “greener” process of manufacturing the equipment necessary for solar power production. BUT, the initial outlay is STILL significantly less when you realize a solar panel is good for upwards of 50 to 75 years when built correctly and maintained properly. This effectively makes the outlay of non-renewable energy for the production of the equipment negligible when compared to coal, natgas, nuclear, etc. over a 100 year cycle.

    Incidentally, when you coppice wood, you consistently replace the amount of wood you consume and the process of coppicing actually promotes increased bio-diversity, overall health of forests and soil regeneration.

    Lastly, NOTHING is carbon neutral when you look at things in terms of 1,2, or even 5 year cycles. You must use at LEAST 7 year cycles up to 300 years. The only way to be carbon-neutral in 1 year cycles is to live without ANY modern technology and survive on COMPLETELY on organic food, shelter and energy.

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