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Biomass Plants Are Not The Solution

BY Chris Matera

1/4/2010

We need to get serious about global warming and energy generation, but wood burning biomass plants are a false solution, which will worsen our problems, not help to solve them.

While the word "biomass" conjures up pleasant images, the promotion of this old caveman incinerator technology as "green" is a colossal "greenwash" by the timber and trash industries attempting to cash in on lucrative public clean energy subsidies.

One can become quite cynical to learn that our "green" energy subsidies are promoting the cutting of forests and burning them in dirty biomass plants instead of promoting the truly clean energy solutions such as solar, geothermal, appropriately scaled and located wind and hydro, and most importantly conservation and efficiency.

A Biomass Reality Check

Contrary to industry claims, biomass energy does not reduce carbon dioxide emissions, it increases them.

Biomass energy produces 50 percent more carbon dioxide per megawatt hour of energy than coal. That is not a typo, and is based on numbers from the proponents' own reports. Since burning wood is so inefficient, burning living trees is actually worse than burning coal. Biomass burning releases about 3,300 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt, while coal releases 2,100 pounds. Gas-fired plants release even less, about 1,300 pounds.

Not only is burning trees worse than coal for carbon dioxide emissions, but it produces similar levels of other pollutants such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, volatile organic compounds, sulfur dioxide and particulates. The McNeil biomass plant near Burlington, Vt., touted by biomass proponents, is the number one pollution source in the entire state, emitting 79 classified pollutants, according to planethazard.com.

Massachusetts’ current proposals would build 190 megawatts of biomass energy that would require burning 2.5 million tons of wood each year. This is massive considering that the average total timber harvest in Massachusetts is about 500,000 tons. This means that at a historical logging intensity of 19 tons per acre, 100,000 acres of forest would need to be logged every year in Massachusetts for biomass alone. At this rate, all Western and Central Massachusetts forests could be logged in 16 years. Even our state public forests and parks are targeted for a 1,082 percent increase over historical logging levels to fuel the power plants.

Burning all this forest would only increase Massachusetts power generating capacity 1 percent, yet al- ternative, economic conservation and efficiency measures, which cost a third of new energy, could reduce our energy use by 30 percent.

At this time of ecological and economic crisis, there is no reasonable argument for forcing taxpayers to subsidize new pollution, carbon dioxide emissions, forest devastation, and carbon-based fuels for minimal amounts of power. These policies will worsen air pollution, increase greenhouse gas emissions, deplete forests and drain our public coffers, the exact opposite of what we need to be doing right now. These taxpayer subsidies and other incentives should be redirected toward truly green technologies to produce clean, non-carbon emitting energy, and local jobs. 

Chris Matera is the founder of Massachusetts Forest Watch, a citizen watchdog group formed to defend Massachusetts state forests against commercial exploitation. Learn more at www.maforests.org.