Biomass FAQ

Or, why it ain't easy burning green
By KHADIJAH M. BRITTON  |  August 31, 2011


WHAT IS BIOMASS? Simply put, biomass is any natural living or once-living substance that can be converted into energy. Here, we mean wood from living forests: tree growth, underbrush, and clippings, all burned for fuel. Yes, burned. In an oven. Like in the olden days.

>> READ: "Deval's Green Blues" by David S. Bernstein <<

WHAT'S ALL THIS CARBON TALK? Whenever we talk about carbon, we're talking about carbon dioxide, the stuff we breathe out. "Carbon sink" is the amount of time where a process is emitting carbon into the air without removing it, "carbon neutrality" is where the amount of carbon emitted into the atmosphere is equal to the amount that is removed from the atmosphere, and "carbon sequestration" is how the forest naturally sucks up carbon, giving us clean air to breathe.

WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL? The big deal is this: most of the benefit of wood-fueled biomass goes into the pockets of the biomass companies in the form of subsidies, and we get inefficient power and bad air in return.

As anyone that has burned wood knows, because of its high moisture, wood yields less energy compared with more efficient fuels, such as coal, gas, or oil. In order to get the wood dry enough to burn, biomass plants must heat the wood before burning it, which requires energy. Not only that, but since wood burners are usually less efficient than those used for coal, gas, or oil, the carbon dioxide emitted from the process is higher, and results in less usable energy.

Biomass power-plant owners use fuzzy math to claim wood-burning biomass fuel plants are "green." In their eyes, seeing that wood emits the same amount of carbon whether it's burned or left to decay in the forest, the net change in atmospheric carbon dioxide is zero. However, that ignores the carbon energy required to transport and process the wood to capture the energy for use, along with the carbon released with damage to the forest ecosystem. After being bombarded with scientific data from environmental groups across the country, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has put its biomass recommendations on hold to undergo more research. According to Biomass Accountability Project spokesperson Meg Sheehan, "EPA has sound scientific grounds for challenging the conventional and scientifically unsupported view of biomass as carbon-neutral."

Generating the same amount of electricity from biomass emits roughly 50 percent more carbon dioxide than coal, according to a 2010 study commissioned by the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources and performed by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, a nonprofit environmental research organization. Furthermore, a report analyzing Department of Energy data by Chris Matera, P.E., of Massachusetts Forest Watch estimated biomass emissions at 150 percent more than existing natural-gas power plants and 330 percent more than the newest, most efficient gas plants. MassPIRG's analysis is even more damning: they've reported that a proposed biomass plant in Russell would emit 50 to 250 percent more carbon dioxide per unit of energy produced than the 10 worst carbon-dioxide-emitting power plants in the Northeast.

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