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.