The Great Biomass Boondoggle

image of biomass plant

Marlboro Productions
Enviva’s pellet plant, Ahoskie, North Carolina, 2017

The urgency of the climate crisis is inspiring some extreme and unproven ideas for how to hide carbon and cool the planet, such as ocean fertilization, turning CO2 into rocks, and seeding the atmosphere to dim the sun. Arguably one of the most reckless ideas, though, is already well underway: burning “forest biomass”—that is, trees—in power plants as a replacement for coal. The problem with this so-called green energy source is that instead of decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, it increases the amount of CO2coming out of the smokestack compared to fossil fuels, and the climate “benefit” is claimed by simply not counting the emissions.

While policymakers in developed countries (the European Union, the United States, Canada, Japan, and Korea, among others) seem perfectly happy with this solution, scientists and activists are reacting with bewilderment and fury as entire forests are vaporized into the atmosphere in the name of renewable energy. Meanwhile, the burgeoning biomass and wood-pellet industries are dancing away with billions in renewable energy subsidies. To counter this atrocious trend, I founded an organization in 2010, the Partnership for Policy Integrity, to provide reliable science and policymaking clarity on the forest and climate impacts of burning forests for fuel. Since then, many environmental groups have joined the fight, but we still haven’t ended this parade of stupidity, because the forces are powerful and the pool of money is deep.

Like many damaging forms of economic activity, the biomass industry started out small and at first flew under the radar. For decades, sawmills and pulp and paper manufacturers have burned sawdust, wood scraps, and black liquor (the condensed chemical slurry left over from wood pulping) to produce heat and power. Environmental groups were content to call this green energy considering that the alternative had been incineration or dumping black liquor into streams. And since these other outcomes would generate CO2 anyway, burning such materials was considered to provide carbon-neutral energy. Few people questioned why even the filthiest, most polluting biomass boilers at paper mills—some producing sulfur dioxide emissions to rival those of coal plants—were getting renewable energy subsidies, and over time these subsidies (along with federal renewable energy tax credits) became an important source of revenue for wood-consuming industries. 10-14-19

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