Editor’s note: This commentary is by Rachel Smolker, who is a co-director of Biofuelwatch. She has researched, written about and campaigned against large scale bioenergy and its negative impacts on public health and the environment. She has a Ph.D. in biology/ecology from the University of Michigan. She is on the steering committee for Campaign to Stop GE Trees, is a board member for Global Forest Coalition, and is a founding member of the Hinesburg group Protect Geprags Park.
As codirector of Biofuelwatch, an organization that has dedicated a huge amount of time and energy into trying to myth bust the burning of trees as “renewable energy” over the past decade, I was thrilled to read Mr. Ohanian’s Jan. 27 critique of Middlebury College’s claims about its biomass plant (which by the way mirror neutrality claims made by the city of Burlington, where McNeil generating station burns biomass and wrongly claims it is “neutral”). We need to keep busting that myth over and over again for the reasons stated.
Unfortunately, a sad reality is that burning biomass is the most convenient “renewable” subsidized as such, because it is combustion — like coal. Large coal plants like DRAX in UK for example, can retrofit to burn wood with or instead of coal, and provide “baseload” power. Burning biomass is polluting like coal too, in fact it emits more dangerous particulates even than coal (per unit of power generation). The darn thing of it is that so long as the carbon accounting skullduggery is maintained, there will be the myth that we are reducing CO2 even as we are making matters only far worse.
We have to face the reality that is fundamental law of physics: There is no such thing as “free energy.”
Even the International Panel on Climate Change has been sipping the biomass Kool-Aid. They are now including “bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration” into most of their models for trajectories to achieve various levels of greenhouse gas stabilization. They say it will be not just carbon neutral, but carbon “negative” because the CO2 from a supposedly neutral process will be captured and buried underground. There are so many problems with this — please read more here if you are interested — but fundamentally if biomass burning is not carbon neutral it can never be carbon negative. Besides that, there are no commercial-scale facilities in existence and the process for carbon capture is technically very costly, energy demanding and unreliable, so we are banking our future on a total fantasy technology. Finally the few places where CO2 is captured (from corn ethanol refineries), it is used for enhanced oil recovery
However, when I got to the end of Mr. Ohanian’s otherwise great commentary, I felt terribly let down as he offers up natural gas as a better alternative to biomass for Middlebury College. Let’s not deceive ourselves about natural gas either. Sure there is less CO2 emitted, but natural gas is essentially methane, which is another very potent greenhouse gas, far more potent that CO2. We know now that atmospheric spikes in methane we are seeing right now are related to the fracking boom, and we also know that one of the quickest ways to slow climate change would be to focus on shorter-lived gases like methane. So let’s not be supporting another form of dirty energy. Right now we are fighting hard against a fracked gas pipeline under construction through our state, where fracking is banned. Let’s not work at odds. But we cannot continue to play “energy whack a mole” or “pin the tail on the truth about energy” any longer. We have to face the reality that is fundamental law of physics: There is no such thing as “free energy.”
Let’s not engage solely in picking our energy poison, but instead engage in a much deeper discussion about how to use way less energy, set equitable priorities for its use, distribution and control, and embrace “system change not climate change.”