EXCLUSIVE: Biomass Energy and the Carbon Neutral Shell Game

- by Brett Leuenberger, July 6, 2015 (Graphics by Brett Leuenberger)
Related Content: Biomass Incineration and Climate (debunking carbon neutrality)
[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"489","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"480","style":"width: 333px; height: 431px; margin: 3px 10px; float: left;","width":"371"}}]]Who would have ever thought that clean renewable energy could come from a smokestack? And yet, according to our U.S. government and the biomass industry, that’s exactly what’s happening when you burn trees (biomass) for energy. I don’t know about you, but when it comes to renewable energy, I think of wind turbines and solar panels producing clean, emission-free renewable energy.
While the final rulemaking process for biomass emissions is still in review, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released this memo last November from Janet McCabe to industry stakeholders, which endorses most biomass emissions as carbon neutral:
  • "For waste-derived feedstocks, the EPA intends to propose exempting biogenic CO2 emissions from GHG BACT analyses and anticipates basing that proposal on the rationale that those emissions are likely to have minimal or no net atmospheric contributions of biogenic CO2 emissions, or even reduce such impacts, when compared with an alternate fate of disposal."
Most of us can agree with the fact that we’re facing unprecedented global climate change due to our use of fuels that emit greenhouse gases (mainly carbon) into the atmosphere. There are a few possible ways to address this global climate challenge. One way is to vastly reduce or terminate our use of carbon emitting fuel sources by transitioning to emission-free energy sources like wind, solar and tidal. We could expand on that idea by creating hyper-local communities that focus on energy efficiency and renewable energy through the use of micro-grids. That’s why the carbon emissions from biomass are so critically important, especially as we look to our future energy and transportation needs and how those choices affect our earth’s climate.
The Biomass Boondoggle
There are multiple environmental issues with burning wood for biomass energy. Burning wood (pulp, chips, trimmings, sawdust residues and whole trees) for biomass energy actually emits more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than fossil fuels. Compared to fossil fuels, woody biomass is significantly less energy efficient and you need to burn at least twice as much wood to produce the same amount of thermal energy. For example, one ton of wood pellets produce 16.5 million BTU’s of energy while one ton of #2 fuel oil produces (52% more) 33.8 million BTU’s of energy.
Burning trees for biomass is a double whammy for the environment; not only are you adding more carbon emissions than fossil fuels, but you are also removing trees that work as carbon sinks and sequester vast amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere. The biomass industry claims they use low value waste wood for fuel, but overwhelming evidence shows the industry repeatedly using whole trees for biomass and wood pellet production. 
Similarly, the industry is not obligated to account for the immediate or future loss of carbon sequestration from harvested trees. When compared to other “free” renewable energy sources like wind and solar, biomass energy is considerably more expensive to operate and requires long-term costs for sourcing the woody biomass fuel. Likewise, using woody biomass as a fuel source for electric utility power is not always cost effective in a competitively priced energy market. Here’s an example of a biomass plant forced to shut down; it was cheaper to remain idle than trying to supply power to the grid, leaving ratepayers on the hook.
The emissions from woody biomass contain high concentrations of particulates, which increase the air quality health risks to humans. Burning biomass exacerbates the problem of ocean acidification by taking locked-up terrestrial carbon (trees) and transforming it to atmospheric carbon dioxide, which is the major cause of ocean acidification. The growing U.S. biomass industry is creating an increased demand for wood, which can escalate clearcutting, deforestation, forest fragmentation, land-use changes and species habitat loss, as pointed out in this multi-disciplinary collegiate study from the Southern Environmental Law Center.