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After the Smurfit-Stone Container Corp.'s linerboard plant in Missoula announced that it was closing permanently, there have been many people including Montana Governor Switzer, Missoula mayor John Engen and Senator Jon Tester, among others who advocate turning the mill into a biomass energy plant. Northwestern Energy, a company which has expressed interest in using the plant for energy production has already indicated that it would expect more wood from national forests to make the plant economically viable. The Smurfit Stone conversion to biomass is not alone. There has been a spade of new proposals for new wood burning biomass energy plants sprouting across the country like mushrooms after a rain. Currently there are plans and/or proposals for new biomass power plants in Maine, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Florida, California, Idaho, Oregon and elsewhere. In every instance, these plants are being promoted as “green” technology.

Biomass Energy: Beware of the Costs

BIOMASS WOOD ENERGY—NOT THE ANSWER

After the Smurfit-Stone Container Corp.’s linerboard plant in Missoula announced that it was closing permanently, there have been many people including Montana Governor Schweitzer, Missoula mayor John Engen and Senator Jon Tester, among others who advocate turning the mill into a biomass energy plant. Northwestern Energy, a company which has expressed interest in using the plant for energy production has already indicated that it would expect more wood from national forests to make the plant economically viable.

The Smurfit Stone conversion to biomass is not alone. There has been a spate of new proposals for new wood burning biomass energy plants sprouting across the country like mushrooms after a rain. Currently there are plans and/or proposals for new biomass power plants in Maine, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Florida, California, Idaho, Oregon and elsewhere. In every instance, these plants are being promoted as “green” technology.

Part of the reason for this “boom” is that taxpayers are providing substantial financial incentives, including tax breaks, government grants, and loan guarantees. The rationale for these taxpayer subsidies is the presumption that biomass is “green” energy. But like other “quick fixes” there has been very little serious scrutiny of biomass real costs and environmental impacts. Whether commercial biomass is a viable alternative to traditional fossil fuels can be questioned.

Before I get into this discussion, I want to state right up front, that coal and other fossil fuels that now provide much of our electrical energy need to be reduced and effectively replaced. But biomass energy is not the way to accomplish this end goal.

BIOMASS BURNING IS POLLUTION

First and foremost, biomass burning isn’t green. Burning wood produces huge amounts of pollution. Especially in valleys like Missoula where temperature inversions are common, pollution from a biomass burner will be the source of numerous health ailments. Because of the air pollution and human health concerns, the Oregon Chapter of the American Lung Association, the Massachusetts Medical Society and the Florida Medical Association, have all established policies opposing large-scale biomass plants.

The reason for this medical concern is that even with the best pollution control devises, biomass energy is extremely dirty. For instance, one of the biggest biomass burners now in operation, the McNeil biomass plant in Burlington, Vermont is the number one pollution source in the state, emitting 79 classified pollutants. Biomass releases dioxins, and as much particulates as coal burning, plus carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and contribute to ozone formation.

BIOMASS GENERATES MORE CARBON THAN COAL

Besides ignoring the human health aspects of large scale biomass burning, assertions that biomass energy is “green” is a misnomer. Wood burning generates 50% more carbon dioxide than coal. This is largely a factor of the lower heat content in wood which means to generate the same amount of megawatts requires burning far more wood than coal to achieve the same amount of electricity. Biomass burning releases about 3,300 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt, while coal releases 2,100 pounds.

BIOMASS IS NOT CARBON NEUTRAL

Proponents of biomass often claim that biomass is “carbon neutral.” The reasoning behind this claim is the fact that growing trees will sequester carbon. On the surface this may make sense, however, it ignores that the it takes decades for new forest growth to capture the carbon that is released by trees consumed in a biomass burner. And that assumes there will be new trees growing—something that one can’t assume because climate change could make many places less suitable for forest growth. In an era of climate change, the assumption that a forest cut will grow back on the same site is optimistic at best.

The problem for humanity is that we need to reduce large scale carbon emissions now, not in 50 or 100 years as forests sequester carbon over decades.

BIOMASS ENERGY IS INEFFICIENT

Wood is not nearly as concentrated a heat source as coal, gas, oil, or any other fossil fuel. Most biomass energy operations are only able to capture 20-25% of the latent energy by burning wood. That means one needs to gather and burn more wood to get the same energy value as a more concentrated fuel like coal. That is not to suggest that coal is a good alternative, rather wood is a worse alternative. Especially when you consider the energy used to gather the rather dispersed source of wood and the energy costs of trucking it to a central energy plant. If the entire carbon footprint of wood is considered, biomass creates far more CO2 with far less energy output than other energy sources.

The McNeil Biomass Plant in Burlington Vermont seldom runs full time because wood, even with all the subsidies (and Vermonters made huge and repeated subsidies to the plant—not counting the “hidden subsidies” like air pollution) wood energy can’t compete with other energy sources, even in the Northeast where energy costs are among the highest in the nation. Even though the plant was also retrofitted so it could burn natural gas to increase its competitiveness with other energy sources, the plant still does not operate competitively. It is generally is only used to off- set peak energy loads.

One could argue, of course, that other energy sources like coal are greatly subsidized as well, especially if all environmental costs were considered. But at the very least, all energy sources must be “standardized” so that consumers can make informed decisions about energy—and biomass energy appears to be no more green than other energy sources.

BIOMASS SANITIZES AND MINES OUR FORESTS

The dispersed nature of wood as a fuel source combined with its low energy value means any sizeable energy plant must burn a lot of wood. For instance, the McNeil 50 megawatt biomass plant in Burlington, Vermont would require roughly 32,500 acres of forest each year if running at near full capacity and entirely on wood. Wood for the McNeil Plant is trucked and even shipped on trains from as far away as Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Quebec and Maine.

Biomass proponents often suggest that wood as a consequence of forest thinning to improve “forest health” (logging a forest to improve health of a forest ecosystem is an oxymoron.) will provide the fuel for plant operations. For instance, one of the assumptions of Senator Tester’s Montana Forest Jobs bill is that thinned forests will provide a ready source of biomass for energy production. But in many cases, there are limits on the economic viability of trucking wood any distance to a central energy plant. Again without huge subsidies, this simply does not make economic sense.

Biomass forest is even worse for forest ecosystems than clearcutting. Biomass energy tends to utilize the entire tree, including the bole, crown, and branches. This robs a forest of nutrients, and disrupts energy cycles.

Worse yet, such biomass removal ignores the important role of dead trees to sustain the forest ecosystems. Dead trees are not a “wasted” resource. They provide home and food for thousands of species, including 45% of all bird species in the Nation. Dead trees that fall to the ground are used by insects, small mammals, amphibians and reptiles for shelter and even potentially food. Dead trees that fall into streams are important physical components of aquatic ecosystems and provide critical habitat for many fish and other aquatic species. Removal of dead wood is mining the forest.

Keep in mind that logging activities are not benign. Logging typically requires some kind of access, often roads which are a major source of sedimentation in streams, and disrupt natural subsurface water flow. Logging can disturb sensitive wildlife like grizzly bear and even elk are known to abandon locations with active logging. Logging can spread weeds. And finally since large amounts of forest carbon are actually tied up in the soils, soil disturbance from logging is especially damaging, often releasing substantial additional amounts of carbon over and above what is released up a smoke stack.

BIOMASS ENERGY USES LARGE AMOUNTS OF WATER

A large-scale biomass plant (50 MW) uses close to a million gallons of water a day for cooling. Most of that water is lost from the watershed since approximately 85% is lost as steam. Water channeled back into a river or stream typically has a pollution cost as well, including higher water temperatures that negatively impact fisheries, especially trout. Since cooling need is greatest in warm weather, removal of water from rivers occurs just when flows are lowest, and fish are most susceptible to temperature stress.

BIOMASS ENERGY SAPS FUNDS FROM OTHER TRULY GREEN ENERGY SOURCES LIKE SOLAR

Since biomass energy is eligible for state renewable portfolio standards (RPS), it has captured the bulk of funding intended to move the country away from fossil fuels. For example, in Vermont, 90% of the RPS is from “smokestack” sources—mostly biomass incineration. This pattern holds throughout many other parts of the country. Biomass energy is thus burning up funds that could and should be going into other energy programs like energy conservation, solar and insulation of buildings.

PUBLIC FORESTS WILL BE SACRIFICED FOR BIOMASS ENERGY

Many of the climate bills now circulating in Congress, as well as Montana Senator Jon Tester’s Montana Jobs and Wilderness bill target public forests as a source for wood biomass. One federal study suggests that 368 million tons of wood could be removed from our national forests every year—of course this study did not include the ecological costs that physical removal of this much would have on forest ecosystems.

The Biomass Crop Assistance Program, or BCAP, which was quietly put into the 2008 farm bill has so far given away more than a half billion dollars in a matching payment program for businesses that cut and collect biomass from national forests and Bureau of Land Management lands. And according to a recent Washington Post story, the Obama administration has already sent $23 million to biomass energy companies, and is poised to send another half billion.

And it is not only federal forests that are in jeopardy. Many states are eyeing their own state forests for biomass energy. For instance, Maine recently unveiled a new plan known as the Great Maine Forest Initiative which will pay timber companies to grow trees for biomass energy.

JOB LOSSES

Ironically one of the main justifications for biomass energy is the creation of jobs, yet the wood biomass rush is having unintended consequences for other forest products industries. Companies that rely upon surplus wood chips to produce fiberboard, cabinet makers, and furniture are scrambling to find wood fiber for their products. Considering that these industries are secondary producers of products, the biomass rush could threaten more jobs than it may create.

BOTTOM LINE

Large scale wood biomass energy is neither green, nor truly economical. It is also not ecologically sustainable and jeopardizes our forest ecosystems. It is a distraction that funnels funds and attention away from other more truly worthwhile energy options, in particular, the need for a massive energy conservation program, and changes in our lifestyles that will in the end provide truly green alternatives to coal and other fossil fuels.

About George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner has published 36 books, including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy

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25 comments

  1. George, something I’m left wondering after reading this is do you think there is an appropriate scale for Biomass? Wasn’t sure if your article was a blanket opposition or if you only disagree with large scale biomass projects. You don’t seem to offer many solutions for moving forward.

  2. George –

    What about other types of biomass fuels, such as agricultural by-product?

    Are there alternative, “truly green” fuels that you would advocate instead?

  3. Old Dart and Smithhammer

    I suspect that small scale biomass could work, especially biomass from agricultural stumble, and other sources like that that involve already ecologically compromised landscapes. All of this is somewhat dependent on the location, of course. Valleys like those in Western Montana with temperature inversions exacerbate all the pollution problems with any power plant operation.

  4. If you suspect that “small scale biomass could work”, where is your cut-off? What is small scale? Where does “large scale” begin? Do you consider increased efficiencies by co-generation/tri-generation that are hard/impossible to achieve on a “small scale”?
    Since you title your article “Beware of the Costs”, do you have a comparison of the different alternatives in terms of life-cycle costs for the economy and ecology of a local community, a watershed, a region?
    How does return-on-investment or another measure of input/output efficiency compare in “valleys like those in Western Montana”, since you mention “other truly green energy sources like solar” – “truly green” as defined by who?
    Curious,

  5. It’s interesting to read yet another article that promotes solar as “truly green”. Where do you think the materials for solar panels comes from. Since they don’t grow on trees, have you ever stopped to think that the materials are mined? I didn’t think you liked mining any more than logging.

  6. Becky;
    I totally agree with you. There is no disputing with you that there are “costs” to everything, even other “green” solutions.

    But all things equal, the question it seems we must ask is what solutions offer the best chance of working effectively (biomass has not been shown to be cost effective) and have less on going economic and environmental costs.

    Once you put solar collectors on a home (as opposed to massive solar development far from cities) and/or insulate the house, and things like that, you have basically your one time cost, but few on-going costs except for maintenance. Yes there are real costs with the mining of materials and even the production of solar panels–no disputes there. There is no free lunch. But we can ask what is the best way to achieve the ultimate goals.

    By that question, large scale wood biomass burners never stop needing input of material. The on-going pollution, destruction of forests, and even the energy needed to bring all that fuel to a central location are all present as long as the biomass burner operates.

    An even greener approach might be insulation. You could achieve far more reduction in the need for electricity for cooling and heating by conservation. Insulating homes, for instance, might be far wiser use of public funds in that it reduces the need for new power production. As a public policy matter, there are not unlimited funds, but we are putting billions into biomass without considering the alternatives, and based on some false assumptions that I tried to point out in the essay.

  7. Have you actually used solar? I have a cabin, off the grid at 6,000 ft. There are panels and batteries to be replaced on a regular basis. I am not alone with this. My neighbors are also regularly replacing batteries and panels. It’s not a one shot operation.

  8. Google up – “Inside China’s Unobtanium Mine” for a close look at the cost of “Green”, as well as all the non-green that emanates from that poisonous pit. And sooner rather than later, even “unobtainium” will be unobtainable because it will all be gone.

    Enjoy the moment in spite of yourself and your contributions to it. This isn’t the Jetsons and it isn’t Star Trek. We won’t sci-fi our way out of what we have done. Buy good shovels, picks and hoes. Like Kunstler wrote, we’re headed back to “A World Made By Hand.”

    That’s going “Green”, and you aren’t going to like it.

    There’s an old adage about “Sticking with the devil you know…” I recall article after article in The Missoulian as well as editorial page entries whining about the pollution from Smurfit-Stone wafting across the Missoula Valley. Well-paying jobs? Who cares?

    Go ahead and go “Green”, now that death becomes her. In this case, as with so many others, “Green” is actually “Brown”, and far more brown than before. The new Devil arrives, and as usual, dressed deceptively. “Welcome, Satan!”

    Besides, “we” make deals with him all the time, don’t we? Love, money, and war – they do say it’s all “fair”. And alas, what shall both the poor and the poor county do as those precious tax receipts vanish into the now seemingly clean air. And what shall become of all the already economically savaged retailers who purvey all those Chinese goods made by those paid slave wages whose efforts are thusly purchased by “Great Americans” driving imports sporting “Support the Troops” magnets!

    There’s a ripple effect from all of this, or perhaps better put, a sort of Chinese water torture as the few remaining jobs above minimum wage disappear from the region, drop by drop. Green.

    As time goes by, the county will have been far better off had it made Smurfit-Stone a tax-free zone just to keep the plant open and the jobs in place. Such would have been far easier than to choke on what awaits…

  9. I believe you painted the environmental and social costs of biomass energy production with too broad a brush.

    Western forest have evolved with a fire ecology that requires fire or a similar disturbance to regenerate. Also our forest/urban interface contains many homes and other infrastructures. Forest fires are major sources of pollution that also have large health and social costs.

    Well designed forest thinning in the urban interface reduces the size and severity of forest fires along with the total particulate matter and other pollutants that would result with larger, more severe fires. Without treatment in these areas, more homes and infrastructures such as the power lines that transport our energy would be lost, and there would be an increase in the cost of fighting fires.

    Biomass energy production helps offset the costs of thinning in the urban interface providing additional economic incentive to move these projects forward. Without this additional incentive, many of these projects would not proceed. Jobs would be lost, many fires would be larger and more severe, and some of the pollutants that would have been scrubbed out of the process during energy production would be released into the environment during wildfires.

  10. I’d encourage you do resist the temptation to dismiss of all biomass facilities out of hand. Not all facilities are created equal, nor are all forests. In western Washington, specifically on the Olympic Peninsula, some pulp mill operators have shifted to biomass as a fuel source for their boilers and for co-gen facilities (taking out their energy needs for paper and wood products production, then sending the surplus electricity into the public grid).

    The ‘biomass’ being used comes from forest slash, which — if not utilized for this purpose — is burnt in slash piles. In short, then, we are seeing a wood waste (biomass) being recovered from private and public forests. Instead of uncontrolled burning of it in the forest, it is being burnt in a controlled situations, with advanced air control devices in place, where the BTUs can be utilized rather than wasted. This practice (Grays Harbor Paper plant in Hoquiam is one early adopter) replaces oil/gas consumption with a fuel that literally be wasted in the forest (again, if left in the forest, it WAS BURNT IN AN UNCONTROLLED PILE).

    So yes, if you look at the ENTIRE Life-cycle analysis of all options, there is a substantial carbon reduction in this practice and it provides an enormous benefit to local air quality by putting in the combustion into a control device.

    NOTE: despite the presence of several pulp/paper mills and industrial sources, the No. 1 source of air pollution in this area is RESIDENTIAL WOOD BURNING (woodstove and fireplace use and outdoor burning of woody yard debris). (www.orcaa.org for more information).

    Bottom line, keep an open mind and don’t let personal biases cloud the issue. Also, don’t look just at one component of the issue — examine the entire life cycle of all fuel sources to determine the true carbon and air pollutant story. Some biomass facilities ARE a net-positive gain for environmental AND HEALTH concerns.

  11. Pat –

    I do not mean to diminish the importance of fire in relationship to forest ecology, but in the pursuit of accuracy here, not all western forests require fire for regeneration. For some species it is an absolute imperative, for others, not so. The great benefit of fire, at least before we “managed” our forests into the current overgrown mess they have become, is the natural thinning process that fire produces. For decades, the Forest Service was “too smart by half” – the direct consequence of that pathetic management led to the recent outbreak of superfires that were rarely seen in the past.

    You then go on and argue “Well designed forest thinning in the urban interface reduces the size and severity of forest fires…”.

    Well Pat, no it doesn’t. Such efforts reduces the size and severity of fires in the urban-wildland interface, and that is all. In the forest proper or back in the wilderness areas, biomass removal in the referred to interface, whether “well-designed” or not, doesn’t matter one damned bit.

    In real terms, around Missoula, Hamilton, Butte, etc, etc, there really isn’t all that much biomass available in the urban-wildland interface when one considers the amount of material needed for energy generation. So if Smurfit-Stone is converted to biomass energy production, how many millions of barrels of oil will be used to transport the required biomass from hundreds of miles away to keep the facility running? With all things considered, literally, the cost-benefit analysis will be upside-down on this proposal. Given that we live in America, it’s horrendous and stupendous debt notwithstanding, is a virtual guarantee that it will move forward.

    Biomass energy production may well offset the costs of thinning in the interface, but are the figures and economic assumptions that are tossed around to support this assertion true and correct? Who is paying for the removal of the biomass? The taxpayer, their children, and the unborn? What are the costs of transporting it from forest to the production facility? Are these costs subsidized (ha,ha!), and if so, by what entity or entities? Are the “real costs” of this then to become part of the obscenely large, financially debilitating and still growing national debt and deficit? And of Smurfit-Stone itself – is the proposed conversion from production to destruction going to be funded by a bankrupt government and the indebted costs of such handed off to the yet unborn, their souls destined to exist in servility because of our current self-serving foolishness?

    What we have is a batch of politicians staring at another giant empty structure that used to produce things and most importantly jobs, saying “We shall overcome!” A hundred bucks says their bloviating about conversion to biomass never sees the light of day. In case you good people didn’t notice, we’re broke. We’re not just broke, we’re bankrupt, but we just can’t stop spending. The government and the entitlement class, which surely includes government employees, are addicts. They ought to all do some cold turkey and start singing, “I want a new drug.”

    Jobs have already been lost, and they have been lost because of a government that failed to oversee and regulate the financial sector. Millions and millions of them. Jobs have been lost because of government policies which promoted (NAFTA, GATT, etc.) the movement of our manufacturing sector abroad and our corporate class which was all too happy to sell you the same product at an increased price with the cost of manufacture cut by 75%. Tens of millions of them. And we are now reduced to burning chipped-up wood in a factory that used to manufacture things of value and buying crap from China.

    Where do you think all the tax revenue that would have flowed into government coffers from said manufacture went? It’s gone, Pat. Forever. Where do you and other acolytes of these ideas think the money is going to come from for these warm and fuzzy solutions? And God, doesn’t anyone care that these propositions, even though they may well “feel good”, are money-losers from the git-go? Wake the hell up! We’re bankrupt and everyone continues to act and think like it’s 1955 or something. Not to go all Christian on you here, but we’re crucifying ourselves!

    And again, go look at the consequences of “unobtainium” at that mine in China. See if that makes you feel all warm and fuzzy…

  12. You probably haven’t had the opportunity to see the biomass facilities in Council, Idaho. They have a good supply of fuel in the WUI. I was amazed at how little fuel it takes to heat the school and their greenhouse facilities. It has done so much more than heat the school. They’ve improved ventilation and air circulation and also use the equipment to cool the school. The cost will be paid back very shortly in the savings on fuel from their old furnace. After touring their facilities and reviewing the Idaho DEQ infomation on emissions, I can’t see why everyone in a similar setting isn’t rushing out to build a similar facility.

  13. Ah, yes.

    Council, Idaho.

    Land of the free and home of a freak tornado that leveled mucho miles of forest. Literally. I have seen it, but only in pictures during a presentation on the damage done by the tornado and the biomass and other associated facilities that were built in its aftermath.

    The U.S.F.S. went out of its way to assist with that project. They not only didn’t stand in the way off getting the trees out, they damn near hauled them out for them. Grant money (debt) flowed in to fund darn near all of it, and in reference to the trees themselves, well, they were already sort of clear cut and there wasn’t much in the way of organized opposition to stop the tornado from doing so. No NEPA, no nothing. The darn thing just did what tornado’s do. No announcement of the pending timber sale, no nothing. Ergo, there was a “Can Do” atmosphere about the whole project. Who could object? Much.

    So, all we need is a spate of freak tornado’s to break out all over the the “Inland Empire” (as the Cascades and here are wholly different ecosystems and they actually log over there) and wreak widespread havoc and destruction everywhere, clear-cutting their way across vast swaths of forest. With the trail of carnage left in their wake, billions of both tons and years of biomass will be guaranteed available for biomass burners, free from protest by well-intentioned environmentalists. And then we can all become, “Council, Idaho.”

  14. Pat:

    I’m well aware of the role of fire in these ecosystems. But there is a substantial difference between leaving behind biomass on the site after a fire (most of the biomass remains as snags) and taking it all for biomass combustion.

    Furthermore, though smoke, etc. is released by forest fires, it’s not a constant. Biomass burners release smoke and other pollution year round–which in terms of public health is far more a problem than the very infrequent wildfire.

    Finally, there is quite a bit of scientific evidence that thinning alone is not very effective in preventing large blazes. Prescribed burning is better, and thinning combined with 2-3 prescribed burns is best. However, none of these appear to work when conditions for a large blaze exist.

    Research has shown he best way to save a house is not to try to try to fireproof the forest, but to fireproof the home.

  15. Dan

    Wood stoves are a problem in many places, particularly where temperature inversions occur. I haven’t lived in Missoula in quite a few years, but when I used to reside there, the winter air was very poor. After getting sick nearly every winter, it drove me out of the town. I don’t know how bad the air is today, but inversions still occur so I suspect that air quality is still an issue.

  16. John, You obviously haven’t been anywhere near Council. Geo, in areas that haven’t been thinned it is not possible to fireproof your home enough. The burns are reaching temperatures that melt glass.

  17. Becky,

    I’ve been through Council, and compared to where I live, it’s a metropolis.

    It is true that the school superintendent in Council began looking at biomass as an alternative fuel as early as 2002. After investigating such, he received a grant of about 300 grand from the U.S.F.S. and the District floated a bond issue for the remaining millions to cover the cost of the boiler and retrofitting the school. Kudos to him. And in the big scheme of things, what happened in Council, Idaho is “micro” at best. The whole idea of biomass use for schools was started in good old Darby, Montana as the mill there was being shuttered.

    There remains the question of getting the fuel in the quantities required for larger scale applications. And incidentally, that tornado did occurred close by Council, and the fuel from the damaged trees became damn near free. Regardless, biomass in these parts isn’t as readily available as one might think. Simply because one is situated near forest lands doesn’t mean you will be granted permission to get it, and as the scale of need increases, the chances of getting what is required lessen. Greater need attracts a greater number of detractors.

    Then there is always the inevitable litigation. Perhaps that is why, to paraphrase you, “everyone in a similar setting isn’t rushing out to build a similar facility.” And some settings are more unique than you think.

    Have you been to Missoula and have you seen the Smurfit-Stone plant? The plant is bigger than all of Council combined. The politicians were pontificating because that’s what gets them votes – making promises that won’t be kept. Or maybe shouldn’t be kept. The biomass conversion idea was tossed out in response to the inevitable “What do we do now?” after more jobs evaporated and the tax base took another hit. Again, where is this “biomass” going to come from. The WUI in the entire Bitterroot doesn’t hold enough to provide for a plant considering the economy of scale being tossed about, short of engaging in clear-cut operations in the WUI. And then what? When it’s all gone, we’re right back to where I argued we would be earlier – burning millions of gallons of fuel to bring in less efficient solid fuel to burn in the biomass generator.

    It’s stupid. It’s a loser. This isn’t downtown Minneapolis surrounded by hardwood forests that produce twice the b.t.u. of our softwoods, nor is it the Cascades with the plentiful logging slash. It’s Missoula, Montana and it’s wishful thinking..

  18. Second paragraph, first line, “spade” should be “spate.”

  19. Bernard

    Thanks I am dyslexic and I can’t spell. It’s always good to have a sharp editorial eye. I’m make the change.

  20. John,

    You make some convincing arguments re: the reliance of biomass power on government subsidies, but your argument about there not being enough biomass fuel to supply a large scale plant doesn’t hold water.

    Did you know that when Smurfit was running the paper plant about 750,000 tons of biomass material was consumed each year – part of it for making paper and another part for fueling a 14 MW power plant? In my mind, that proves that the landscape can provide enough fuel for a biomass power generating facility of significant scale.

  21. Excellent article. We, on this side of the pond (UK) are witnessing a remarkable phenomen – speculators in their droves are jumping on the biomass gravy train intending to make a fortune from government subsidies available to power generators who burn wood instead of coal. Curiously, more subsidies are on offer for biomass than any other ‘renewable’ energy. As a result biomass power stations are springing up all over the UK with a total capacity of 600MW built to date and a similar capacity in the pipeline.
    Of course, only a tiny fraction of the wood fuel can be sourced from the UK and it is evident that the bulk is to be imported from the USA and Canada. It goes without saying that you guys have plenty of spare wood just lying around waiting for someone to find a use for it! No question that the millions of tonnes to be exported annually to the UK will come from sustainable sources!
    I wonder how our EU and UK politicians allowed themselves to be persuaded that biomass was good for the environment. Did they not learn anything from the biofuels fiasco? By the time they come to their senses it will be too late!
    Biofuels + Biomass = Biomess.
    Regards,
    Ron H

  22. Ron,
    what is the “evidence” that the necessary wood supply would be imported from the US and Canada? Don’t you think there are other large forested areas somewhat closer and more economical? Like Russia? When the wood biomass markets pick-up in the US, it won’t be economically feasible to ship it half around the world, don’t you think?

  23. By Ron H
    Karhu,
    The evidence came straight from the horse’s mouth – the owners of the biomass power stations openly declare where they obtain their fuel. As for Russia, it may be marginally closer but still a huge transport carbon footprint. As you indicated, it will be interesting when demand for wood fuel exceeds supply. The price of fuel will surely increase and protected state forests could be be targeted to meet the demand.
    Biomass is not a clean or sustainable source of energy. We have plenty of other cleaner, renewable technologies available which should be exploited. Sooner, rather than later, it will be realised that trees have a greater value left growing rather than being felled for biomass energy.

  24. Ron,
    now we have to come up with a definition what “clean and sustainable” means before I can tell you if I agree or disagree with you. If “clean” means a low carbon footprint over the life-cycle of the product or process, then fuel derived from wood is somewhere in between PV and wind (from a study in the UK). Which, in my opinion, would make it a relatively “clean” source. However, sun, wind and biomass are not equally distributed across the landscape, so some source will be more available in one part of the country than another, and hence will make for a more viable and efficient utilization.
    As for “sustainable”: Where I live, forests grow back, which makes them a sustainable source, no? The key is, trees only keep growing until they reach a certain age and then stop, just like us humans. If you want actively growing trees, then you might as well remove some of the older ones to make room for the younger ones. Which would address your point of “left growing”.
    So I guess I partially agree and partially disagree with you and keep working towards a clean and renewable energy mix, including biomass.

  25. Karhu,
    Where I live trees grow back too but not near fast enough to keep pace with the rate at which they can be burned in a biomass boiler. A 50MW biomass power station can consume 500,000 tonnes of oven dried timber a year. The equivalent of a forest of mature trees (30- 40 years old softwood) disappearing up the chimney and dumping its sequestered CO2 in one fell swoop (so to speak). ‘Sustainable’ in the context of biomass fuel requires the CO2 emissions to be counterbalanced by CO2 sequestration. For this to occur reforestation must match deforestation, not in acreage terms but in CO2 terms. Planting a million saplings to replace a million mature trees simply won’t do. The math does not add up. The oceans and soil (carbon sinks)also play a big part in sequestering CO2 but it appears, certainly in the case of the former, that it is taking up too much CO2 leading to problems of acidification.
    Karhu, you can continue to include biomass in your renewable mix if you wish but I would’nt touch it with a barge pole!