Written by Robert Hunziker
Stop cutting down trees for biomass… STOP WOODY BIOMASS!
That should be a bumper sticker on every vehicle in America and around the world as easy-to-read bumper stickers are more effective than many forms of advertising. And, just for starters, maybe plaster that new biomass bumper sticker over the old one that reads: “My child is an honor student at….” Oh! Please!
According to LSA – University of Colorado/Boulder, wood accounts for 79% of biomass production and accounts for 3.2% of energy production. Wood dominates the worldwide biomass industry.
For perspective purposes, a paid lobbyist on behalf of trees could rightfully claim: (1) Trees cool and moisten our air and fill it with oxygen. (2) They calm the winds and shade the land from sunlight. (3) They shelter countless species, anchor the soil, and slow the movement of water. (4) They provide food, fuel, medicines, and building materials for human activity. (5) They also help balance Earth’s carbon budget. Name another organism with credentials like that!
Meanwhile, the worldwide woody biomass industry consumes forests, gobbling up trees by the minute. But, it’s a wayward ruse to classify woody biomass as “carbon neutral.” It is not carbon neutral. It’s a carbon emitter, the antithesis of clean renewable energy.
A 1,000-kilowatt-hour wood-pellet power plant, enough to power 1,000 homes, emits a total of 1,275 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated. That’s according to Dr. Puneet Dwivedi, a research professor at the University of Georgia. By way of comparison, a 1,000-kilowatt-hour coal plant emits 1,048 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour. The net result is that coal produces 227 grams less CO2 than the biomass plant. Hmm. (Source: A Burning Question: Throw Wood on the Fire for 21st-Century Electricity? CNBC, Sept. 15, 2017)
Meantime, a study at ETH Zurich suggests that a massive expansion of the world’s forests by 1/3 could be the most effective way to tackle climate change. That’s the opposite of cutting forests for biomass purposes. Let the trees stay in place and suck up CO2. (Source: Billions of Extra Trees May Give Us 20 Years to Tackle Climate Change, NewScientist, July 4, 2019).
According to the study, the influx of 1/3 more trees would buy humanity time by adding 20 years to meet climate targets. By keeping that many additional trees rather than felling, it effectively “locks-up 205 gigatonnes of CO2.” It’s significant as humanity emits 37 gigatonnes per year. Additionally, the “scale up of the world’s forests by one-third” helps meet IPCC guidelines to hold temp rises to 1.5°C pre-industrial, assuming temperatures are not already overshooting, an issue of some contention. Which depends a lot upon which baseline is used.
The tradeoff between “saving/enlarging forests” rather than “burning trees” is consequential for several reasons, including, the U.S. Energy Information Agency estimates that for each 1% added to current U.S. electricity production from forest biomass an additional 18% increase in U.S. forest harvest is required. At that rate, by the time woody biomass is a meaningful slice of electricity production, the nation’s forests would be leveled.
How long does it take forests to regrow?
Furthermore, is it really possible to regrow a natural efficient forest ecosystem once it has been denuded of key organic life? No.
A Columbia University study argues for leaving trees alone: “Is Biomass Really Renewable?” State of the Planet, Earth Institute/Columbia University, Updated October 19, 2016, to wit: “Cutting or clearing forests for energy, either to burn trees or to plant energy crops, releases carbon into the atmosphere that would have been sequestered had the trees remained untouched, and the regrowing and thus recapture of carbon can take decades or even a century. Moreover, carbon is emitted in the biomass combustion process, resulting in a net increase of CO2.”
Additionally, according to the Columbia study: “Most of the new biomass electricity generating plants being proposed in the U.S. will burn wood. Plants in the Southeast U.S. are churning out wood pellets to meet Europe’s increasing need for wood. Last year, wood pellet exports from the Southeast increased 70 percent; the Southern U.S. is now the largest exporter of wood pellets in the world. Since there isn’t enough logging residue to meet the increased demand for biomass, many fear that more standing trees will be chopped and more forests clear-cut.”
The overriding issue is that woody biomass negatively impacts climate change, the health of people, and the overall environment. Yet, the market is growing by leaps and bounds in Europe and the U.S. Go figure!
According to Earth Institute, woody biomass power plants actually produce more “global warming CO2” than fossil fuel plants, i.e., 65% more CO2 per megawatt hour than modern coal plants and 285% more CO2 than natural gas combined cycle plants (which use both a gas and steam turbine together). This analysis confirms the conclusion of several similar university-level studies that woody biomass is inefficient and thus a sensible rationale for outright banning of woody biomass.
Furthermore, according to Earth Institute, burning wood biomass emits as much, if not more, air pollution than burning fossil fuels – particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, lead, mercury, and other hazardous air pollutants – which can cause cancer or reproductive effects.
The “air pollution emitted by biomass facilities,” which the American Heart Association and the American Lung Association have called “a danger to public health,” produces respiratory illnesses, heart disease, cancer, and developmental delays in children.” (Earth Institute)
Nevertheless, in 2009 the EU committed to 20% renewable energy by 2020, including biomass (heavily sourced by forests, especially from Canada and the U.S.) as a renewable-energy, which it categorized as “carbon neutral.” This was done to meet obligations under the Paris climate agreement of 2015. Several other countries followed with commitments to “subsidize” biomass development.
As a result, today 50% of EU renewable energy is based upon biomass, and it is on the rise. Expect a command performance of massive growth by biomass in upcoming years.
For example, in the UK, the Drax Group converted 4 of 6 coal-generating units to biomass, powering 12% of UK electricity for 4 million households. The Drax biomass plant has an enormous appetite for wood, e.g., in less than two hours an entire freight train of wooden pellets goes up in smoke, spewing out smoke signals that spell “O Canada” and “Say, can you see… By the dawn’s early light.”
According to Drax’s PR department, their operation has slashed CO2 by over 80% since 2012, claiming to be “the largest decarbonization project in Europe.” (Source: Biomass Energy: Green or Dirty? Environment & Energy – Feature Article, Jan. 8, 2020)
Ahem! When scientists analyzed Drax’s claims, they do not hold up. Not even close!
When wood pellets burn, Drax assumes the released carbon is “recaptured instantly by new growth.” That is a fairy tale.
According to John Sherman, an expert on Complex Systems Analysis at MIT: The carbon debt payback time for forests in the eastern US, where Drax’s wood pellets originated, compared to burning coal, under the best-case scenario, when all harvested land regrows as a forest, the wood pellet “payback time” is 44 to 104 years. Whoa!
Alas, not only is the carbon payback nearly a lifetime when using wood, but according to Sherman: “Because the combustion and processing efficiencies for wood are less than coal, the immediate impact of substituting wood for coal is an increase in atmospheric CO2 relative to coal. This means that every megawatt-hour of electricity generated from wood produces more CO2 than if the power station had remained coal-fired.”
Study after study after study finds that burning coal instead of woody biomass reduces the impact of CO2 atmospheric emissions. Coal is the winner, but problematically coal has already been cast into no-man’s land as a horrific polluter. Therefore, this scenario is a massive complexity as countries have committed to using trees to meet carbon neutral status, but the end results are diametrical to their stated intentions.
Therefore, a preeminent question arises: Why continue using woody biomass if it emits more CO2 per kilowatt-hour than coal?
Alas, not only is it insane to burn trees, but burning “forest residues” rather than whole trees also produces a net emissions impact of 55%-79% greater than direct emissions after 10 years. This is based upon analysis by Mary Booth, an ecosystem ecologist and a director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity, Pelham, Massachusetts.
According to scientist Bill Moomaw, co-author of the Nobel Peace Prize-Winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report and co-author of four additional IPCC reports and widely recognized as one of the world’s leading experts on “carbon sinks”: “If we let some of our forests grow, we could remove an additional 10 to 20 percent of what we emit every year. Instead, we’re paying subsidies to have people cut them down, burning them in place of coal, and counting it as zero carbon.” (Source: Europe’s Renewable Energy Policy is Built on Burning American Trees, Vox, Mar. 4, 2019 – this article was endorsed by the Pulitzer Center)
Dr. Moomaw led a group of 800 scientists that petitioned the EU parliament (Jan. 2018) to “end its support for biomass.”
In June 2018, the EU Commission voted to keep biomass listed as a renewable energy, joined in their position by the support of the U.S. and Britain.
Under the influence of U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, the 2018 fiscal spending bill, as directed by Congress, instructed federal agencies to pass policies that “reflect the carbon-neutrality of biomass.” Among the many benefits mentioned by Congress, three seem almost Orwellian. Oops, scratch that. They are Orwellian, to wit: “To promote environmental stewardship by improving soil and water quality, reducing wildfire risk, and helping ensure our forests continue to remove carbon from the atmosphere.”
Congress’s emphasis on biomass that fells trees “ensuring that our forests continue to remove carbon from the atmosphere.” Really?
What about reams upon reams of scientific analyses that conclude it is a huge mistake to fell forests for biomass?
In the final analysis, the sorrowful impact of woody biomass can be summed up by two short sentences: (1) Wood-pellet power plants emit more CO2 into the atmosphere than coal-powered plants. (2) If forests are left alone an additional 10% to 20% of human-generated CO2 emissions are absorbed by the forests every year. Ipso facto, nature does the dirty work all by itself… for free!