Don’t Burn Forests To Make Electricity

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by Josh Schlossberg

The Obama administration and Congress insist that burning forests for electricity, a technology called biomass power incineration, is “clean and green” – right up there with solar and wind. But burning trees for power is bad economic policy, ruinous for forests and hazardous to your health.

Despite that, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Biomass Crop Assistance Program has established $461 million in subsidies for biomass development over the next fifteen years, while Congress has extended Section 1603 of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009,paying for up to 30 percent of construction costs for new biomass facilities.

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The states are responding enthusiastically to these incentives with plans for dozens of new forest incinerators centered in New England, the upper Midwest, Southeast, and Pacific Northwest where trees are plentiful. Eight new biomass incinerators are on tap for Ohio, and five in East Texas. Five more big facilities are planned for Massachusetts – a move calculated to quadruple logging in the state but only provide about one percent of its electricity. Florida, meanwhile, is processing permits for one of the biggest biomass facilities ever built, a 100-megawatt monster in Gainesville.

While these new biomass incinerators are being touted as “clean energy” by Washington, big Wall Street investment firms, the timber industry, and power companies wishing to move away from coal and appear green, there’s a downside. Biomass power not only consumes our nation’s forests, it also pollutes our air, and adds to global warming.

Unlike solar and wind energy, biomass incinerators can emit harmful pollutants, including carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrochloric acid, ammonia, formaldehyde, chlorine, and dioxin. Though biomass supporters claim the technology is squeaky clean, you need look no further than the 26-year-old McNeil biomass plant –Vermont’s single biggest polluter.

Biomass incinerators also emit particulates, for which there is no safe level of exposure, according to American Cancer Society studies.The American Lung Association also condemns biomass incineration, citing “severe impacts on the health of children, older adults, and people with lung diseases,” while the Massachusetts Medical Society states that, “biomass power plants pose an unacceptable risk to the public’s health by increasing air pollution.”

Environmental justice issues often accompany the placement of biomass incineration facilities. Vermont’s McNeil station, for instance, is located adjacent to a low-income, ethnically-diverse residential neighborhood in Burlington, 200 yards from the closest residences.

So why exactly are the feds spending our tax dollars to burn the nation’s forests for electricity? To curb climate change, they tell us.

Yet, carbon dioxide emissions from biomass are roughly 1.5 times higher than from coal, and 3 to 4 times greater than from natural gas, per unit of energy generated, says the Environmental Working Group. In 2010, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts released the Manomet study, demonstrating that forest biomass incineration will release more global warming gases than coal – coal! – over the timeframe climate scientists say we must drastically cut carbon emissions.

Living, growing forests are already one of our greatest weapons in the fight against climate change. Given their capacity to store and sequester carbon dioxide, why burn them down?

The real green alternative is simple: We don’t need more generating capacity. We need to use the energy we already produce more efficiently. In fact, efficiency alone could more than make up for the electricity generated by burning forests.

More states should follow Vermont’s lead, which established Efficiency Vermont, the nation’s first ratepayer-funded energy efficiency utility. It has cut state energy use by 7 percent, and energy costs to homes and businesses by $31 million annually.

Another big energy saver: The U.S. Senate should pass the Home Star Energy Retrofit Act, which would support energy efficiency measures creating 170,000 jobs and saving families close to $10 billion on energy bills over ten years, according to bill sponsor Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT).

If we’re truly determined to transition to a clean energy future, let’s make sure every taxpayer dollar is wisely and honestly spent, implementing economically efficient, ecologically sound, genuinely clean, renewable and sustainable energy sources, instead of sending that money up in smoke, along with our carbon-storing forests.

Few deny the need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels. But in our scramble to limit – and ultimately end – our dependence on oil, let’s make sure we’re not jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. We burned our way into the energy and climate change mess, we’re certainly not going to burn our way out.

Josh Schlossberg is communications coordinator for the Biomass Accountability Project, editor/journalist for the Biomass Busters newsletter, and a forest commissioner in his town of East Montpelier, VT.To comment on this column go to www.blueridgepress.com © BRP 2011


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  • boilrmkr

    Josh evidently went to the school of “How to dig out and paraphrase any information to bend it to your use – 101″.

    Let me try it. I-c-i-n-e-r-a-t-o-r. Boooo! Everyone terrified now? Can you say “gasification”? How about “extended, VOC destoying, retention time” or “flue gas recirculation” (you know, Josh, like the EGR valve on your polluting car)? Oh, that’s right, you don’t kow anything about the current and emerging technologies.

    Completely slanted view that ignores the real world facts. Even the authors of some of the reports he “quotes” have made public clarification announcements to correct misinterpetations of their reports by folks like Josh.

    Fact: biomass energy has been successfully used on a small scale basis for decades without the forests disappearing or animals/people falling over smothered in the streets.

    99% of existing biomass energy plants use biomass waste stream from product manufacturing. Trees weren’t cut down to make fuel. If we just diverted the paper and clean wood products from entering our landfills not one tree would be cut down for fuel.

    Emission regulations are much more strigent than they were when the McNeil plant was constructed and new, more efficient control technologies are being employed NOW. Josh says biomass energy plants “can” emit certain pollutants but he fails to also say that most of those nasties have to come from contaminated biomass not clean biomass.

    Josh, you should be railing against the European Union for so heavily subsidizing pelletized biomass energy use that over 300 pelletizing operations have sprung up in the US to cut our trees down to send overseas.

    The Biomass Accountability Project needs to get a new communications coordinator with some credibility.