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By Robert Rapier on Dec 15, 2009 with no responses

Biomass Is Not Crazy Logic

I saw a story about a week ago that I flagged to comment on when I got caught up. I suppose I am caught up enough now to do so. The story is:

Burn a Tree to Save the Planet? The Crazy Logic Behind Biomass

The author is listed as Joshua Frank, described as an environmental journalist and the author of Left Out!: How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush. Frank has previously written an article critical of Oregon’s usage of electricity derived from coal, and in the current essay he turns his attention to biomass.

The article is confusing from the start:

It might seem crazy that anyone would even consider the incineration of wood and its byproducts to be a green substitute for toxic fuels such as coal. Yet that’s exactly what is happening all over the country, and it has many environmentalists scratching their heads in disbelief.

I find those comments baffling. Why would it seem crazy to believe that burning biomass – which utilizes CO2 when it is growing and helps sequester carbon in the soil through the root systems, leaves, and slash – would be greener than burning a fossil fuel like coal that has a long list of potentially undesirable environmental impacts? Do you know what happens to waste biomass that isn’t utilized? It decomposes and ends up as the same CO2 it would end up as if you burned it.

While it is true that emissions controls on coal-fired power plants are much improved in recent years, it is also true that burning coal has resulted in acid rain and increased levels of mercury in our waterways. Burning coal also increases the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. To suggest that burning trees isn’t greener than burning coal is one of the most ludicrous things I have ever heard. From the tone of the article, it sounds as if the author believes that forestry and the harvesting of trees is by definition bad.

Now it is true that if you cut down an old growth forest and inefficiently turn it into a liquid fuel, that isn’t environmentally responsible. I could certainly envision any number of schemes to make the burning of biomass come out with a higher environmental impact than from burning coal. If I cut down a chunk of the Amazon, displace the people and the wildlife living there, ship the wood halfway around the world, and combust it in an old, inefficient boiler – then yes, the environmental impact of that would be higher than from burning Powder River coal. But such exceptions aren’t the norm. This article, however, paints with a very broad, one-sided brush and acts as if all usage of biomass is by definition bad:

NASA’s James Hansen says that the burning of coal is the single largest contributor to anthropogenic global warming, so any alternative fuel source must decrease the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) released into the atmosphere if we are to put the breaks on climate change. Biomass, despite its label as a renewable energy source, does not solve the problem because burning trees actually emits a large amount of CO2.

That is another very odd comment. Burning coal releases ancient CO2 that was sequestered away. Burning biomass releases recently recycled CO2. That’s why it is renewable. If the author is concerned about CO2 emissions – and he clearly is – then coal and biomass are night and day. And while they acknowledge in their next paragraph that this is what “proponents counter with”, Frank quickly tries to shoot that one down:

An article in Science released last October attempted to debunk the myth that biomass is a good alternative to traditional coal and oil burning. The study, authored by climate scientists, claimed that when an existing forest is chopped and cleared to produce fuel, the ability of those harvested trees to absorb CO2 is eliminated entirely while the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere actually increases.

This entire article seems bent on the notion that the biomass we utilize will come from old growth forest that is slashed, burned, and left fallow. The people interviewed for the article must envision a scenario like turning the Amazon into biofuels – and this is the future they must foresee for biomass to come up with these sorts of conclusions. Such a notion isn’t remotely indicative of the future of biomass. Biomass will be grown for purpose (as I explained in Don’t Weep for the Trees), and it can definitely be grown responsibly and sustainably.

“The game is up,” stated biomass skeptic Ellen Moyer, a principal of green engineering firm Greenvironment, after the release of the report. “The problem has been identified, and the clarion call for course correction has rung out around the world. The days of biomass burning … are numbered and pending legislation needs to be corrected before perverse incentives to burn our forests are enshrined in law.”

You will have to show me the laws that incentivize the burning of our forests. If you mean laws that incentivize the usage of biomass for energy – well that isn’t the same as burning our forests. You first grow the forest, and while that is taking place everything you are complaining about when you burn it is running in reverse. Oh, there can be particulate emissions from improper burning, but it is also true that proper forest management can result in improved soil and increased carbon sequestration in the soil.

Another problem with biomass is that it is typically mixed with substances like coal to produce energy. In Nevada, for example, NV Energy is set to use a mix of coal and wood at its Reid Gardner coal-fired power plant. As a result, the company hopes to qualify for the state’s renewable energy credits.

The first problem is that this isn’t true. That is not how biomass is typically used. It can only be blended with coal in small amounts due to differences in chemical and physical properties, and it requires a substantial investment in the coal plant to allow such mixing. There is a technology called torrefaction that has the potential to allow much greater mixing, as it converts biomass into something like bio-coal. But torrefaction is still mostly at a pre-commercialization stage.

If a coal-fired power plant receiving energy credits isn’t mind boggling enough,…

Why is that mind-boggling? You just wrote that they were going to use wood to displace coal. Why wouldn’t they qualify for the same energy credit anyone else gets for using biomass? Or do you prefer that they simply continue to use 100% coal?

“They are burning more than trees because wood is simply not a good energy source,” said Jeff Gibbs, who resides in Michigan and is fighting the state’s six operating biomass plants. “Look, wood produces 50 percent more CO2 than coal, for the same amount of energy output. We have to stop this before more plants begin to pop up.”

I am sorry, but that’s another ludicrous statement. I would really love to see the analysis that provided that figure.

Not only is biomass not a good source of power, claims a 2007 paper presented at the European Aerosol Conference, it’s also not a healthy alternative to coal. The paper claimed that particulate matter (particles, such as dust, dirt, soot or smoke) was actually higher for a 7 megawatt wood gasification plant than it was for a large coal-fired power station.

There’s that broad brush again. While it is true that wood gasification plants can have lots of particulate emissions, that is not an inherent quality. You can put the same pollution controls on them that you can on coal plants. So once again a bad starting assumption leads to a sweeping, but false conclusion.

In summary, this was a very one-sided view that presented the worst extremes as more or less the status quo for biomass utilization. It is true that you can do things a right way or a wrong way. Water is healthy and I need it to live, but if I drink too much it can kill me. Taking a page from this article, I suppose I should avoid water from now on, as it has the potential to kill me.

For those quoted in the article, I hope they don’t freeze to death in the dark as the biomass they are so opposed to rots and releases its CO2 anyway. As I tell people sometimes, if you are opposed to everything, then prepare to be happy with the status quo.