Biomass Poses 'Treacherous' Path
Friday, August 10, 2007
by Bryan Bird, Forest Guardians
As Gov. Bill Richardson and the state of New Mexico embark on their admirable Climate Change Action Plan, the pursuit of energy solutions, particularly clean, renewable and domestic, is on the fast track. The desire for a quick fix such as the proposed Estancia forest biomass facility is raising tough questions that require immediate attention. Without caution, we will do more harm than good to our health and environment.
Biomass is being pushed hard, both at the state and federal levels, as a domestic, clean and renewable energy along with solar and wind. The U.S. House passed a bill Aug. 4, sponsored by Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., which will require utilities nationally to produce 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources and provides energy credits for electricity produced from biomass. However, without the appropriate controls on emissions, water consumption and forest cutting, this path is treacherous.
Biomass energy generally comes from three sources: burning wood, burning waste, and burning alcohol fuels. Wood energy may be produced from trees harvested for fuel (both from plantations and native forests) as well as from wood waste streams (construction, green waste, etc.). What should be of concern to us, the owners of federal and state forestlands, is that trees and brush would be harvested from forest lands for the sake of energy production at the expense of other critical services including: carbon sequestration, water storage and purification, wildlife habitat, and real estate values (aesthetics).
The fundamental problem with burning wood to generate energy is that it is not always clean, nor is it necessarily renewable. In most incarnations, native woody biomass does not belong in the nation's renewable energy portfolio, it belongs in the forest, building soils and storing carbon. Burning woody material generates air pollution and releases greenhouse gases, not to mention toxic air pollutants such as formaldehyde. Expensive air pollution controls can reduce these emissions to meet National Ambient Air Quality Standards or better, so that burning trees could feasibly be cleaner than coal or natural gas.
Most if not all energy sources produce greenhouse gasses and air pollution both in production and maintenance of facilities, but discounting these sources, only solar and wind are in fact zero emissions. Forest biomass energy could be "carbon neutral" and offset greenhouse gas production, but only under very controlled conditions such as fast-growing plantations and if there was a guarantee that an equal amount of energy would not be generated elsewhere with fossil fuels.
Whether forest biomass is renewable is equally subjective; forests are complex systems. A forest wastes nothing and depending on climate and other local conditions may take hundreds of years to reach maturity. But power plants need fuel now and will eventually outstrip excess woody growth that may have built up through years of fire suppression.
Before long, we'll be mining forests for electricity just as we do coal. Biomass energy facilities require cooling and enormous amounts of water. Depending on where a facility is located, water can be a significant limiting factor and there is simply no evidence that thinning forests contributes to long-term increases in water yield.
Before we rush to burn our forests for a tiny amount of our overall energy consumption, some difficult questions must be answered. Once these questions are honestly addressed with such proven tools as full life-cycle accounting of greenhouse gasses, the answers will point directly to solar and wind as the only viable, long-term solutions currently available. Then, of course, there is the simplest solution of all— reducing our individual and cumulative consumption of energy.
Bryan Bird is Public Lands Director at Forest Guardians, a regional conservation organization that protects and restores wildlife and wildlands in the West.