August 2015
Volume 6, Issue 8


If You Build It, They Will Cut
(August 2015)

If You Build It, They Will Cut

- by Josh Schlossberg, The Biomass Monitor

Generating biomass energy doesn't result in more logging, according to the biomass industry, whose spokespersons claim facilities only make use of "waste" wood already coming from existing logging operations.

Ron Kotrba, Senior Editor for Pellet Mill Magazine, wrote in the May/June 2015 issue that biomass is the "most unlikely of the forest products to drive the general practice of forestry in the U.S."

Kotrba believes that the notion of biomass "driving forestry practices in the U.S. is a purposefully deceptive scare tactic used by some in an attempt to influence the perceptions of policy makers and the public."

Chris Matera, director of Massachusetts Forest Watch, a grassroots forest advocacy group based in Northampton, has long warned that "wood fueled biomass energy will add tremendous pressure, and further degrade already stressed forests."

"Existing wood-fueled biomass facilities already cut and burn enormous amounts of whole trees for fuel," said Matera, "and any new facilities will only add more logging pressure."

Clearly, opinions differ among the biomass industry and its critics, leaving the question: do biomass energy facilities increase logging?


Federal and state agency personnel, along with members of the biomass industry, have made statements demonstrating that the construction of a bioenergy facility is likely to result in a local increase in logging, including in National Forests, by opening an additional market for the sale of trees that might have otherwise been left in the forest to grow.

Brad Flatten, Stewardship and Timber Sales Specialist for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, was quoted in "Wood Supply Assessment for Commercial-Scale Biomass Power Cogeneration and Biomass Utilization Projects in Central Washington," saying the establishment of biomass energy facilities in Washington state "may provide a market for small-diameter material typically generated from fuels treatment…and potentially increase the number of treatment acres."

In other words, controversial "fuel reduction" logging projects, which many scientific studies suggest aren’t effective at reducing the likelihood of a large wildfire, may expand in scale if a biomass energy facility will purchase the trees.



Biomass Energy and Water Use

- by Union of Concerned Scientists 

Biomass power plants require approximately the same amount of water for cooling as coal power plants, but actual water withdrawals and consumption depends on the facility's cooling technology.

For biomass plants with once-through cooling systems -- which take water from nearby sources, circulate it through the plants cooling system, and then discharge it -- water withdrawals range between 20,000 and 50,000 gallons per megawatt-hour with consumption of 300 gallons per megawatt-hour. Biomass facilities that use wet-recirculating cooling systems -- which reuse cooling water in a second cycle rather than immediately discharging it -- withdraw between 500 and 900 gallons per megawatt-hour and consume approximately 480 gallons per megawatt-hour.

Approximately 75% of existing biomass plants that require cooling use wet-recirculating technology, while 25% of plants use once-through cooling technology. In either case, when withdrawn cooling water is returned to its source, it is much warmer than when it was withdrawn, which often has a negative impact on plant and animal life. As in all thermal plants, this impact must be closely monitored. Dry-cooling systems do not withdraw or consume any water, but the tradeoffs to these water savings are higher costs and lower efficiencies -- meaning more fuel is needed per unit of electricity.

Water is also needed to produce some biomass feedstocks. While some feedstock sources -- such as agricultural, forest, and urban waste -- require no additional water, others -- such as energy crops -- can be very water intensive. Different energy crops vary in terms of how much water they require. Miscanthus, one type of perennial grass, requires a large amount of water, while switchgrass, another perennial grass, generally requires much less.

Water use efficiency of a given crop depends on a number of factors, including soil quality and temperature. In regions with sufficient rainfall where irrigation is not required, water use for producing energy crops may be less of a concern. However, even in water-rich areas, the increased cultivation of energy crops may harm regional water quality as a result of soil tillage and nutrient runoff.

Many of these same issues arise in the cultivation of energy crops for biofuels.



Valuing the Water Used to Generate Electricity

- by Western Resource Advocates

Electrical power generation is one of the biggest consumers of water, so every decision to build a new power plant places additional burdens on already tight water supplies. In contrast, clean, renewable sources of energy are far less water intensive and can even create "new" water supplies when they replace traditional power plants. Nowhere do these types of energy planning decisions have greater consequence than in the dry American West.

Most electric utilities and state and federal regulators do not adequately consider the value of the large volumes of water power plants consume. Electric utilities typically appropriate or purchase water rights for new thermoelectric power plants, but the cost of these water rights does not reflect the opportunity cost of water use over the life of the power plant -- 40 to 50 years or longer. And increasingly, existing and proposed power plants compete directly with water demands for growing food, providing for growing urban areas, and sustaining the West's rivers and streams.

In "Every Drop Counts, Valuing the Water Used to Generate Electricity," Western Resource Advocates analyzed the prices paid for water by the three different sectors -- municipal, agricultural, and environmental -- that compete with power plants for scarce water supplies. In addition, we assess the authority and practice of regulators across six states to consider water in evaluating utilities' electric resource plans. We found that, across the region, the degree to which water influences regulators' and utilities' electric resource planning decisions varies significantly.


The Biomass Monitor is the nation's leading publication covering the health and environmental impacts of "biomass" energy. We accept submissions at thebiomassmonitor AT

Graphic: Western Resource Advocates

Cartoon: RJ Matson


Josh Schlossberg, Mike Ewall, and Samantha Chirillo

Editors, The Biomass Monitor

For subscriptions, blog, and back issues go to:


Low Pass BLM WOPR 019.jpg


- by Josh Schlossberg, Editor

The biomass industry often claims that bioenergy facilities don't result in more trees cut in the forest, insisting that the only wood converted into heat, electricity and transportation fuels is "waste" from existing logging operations. 

Yet, as the lead article in the August issue of The Biomass Monitor proves, government personnel and members of the biomass industry itself admit that bioenergy facilities can spur new logging projects and/or expand the scope of existing ones, which means trees cut specifically for energy.

If you corner industry on this point, they'll quickly explain how these trees are either too young, crooked, or defective to be used for lumber. And while this is often --though, not always -- true, it's a red herring: the "quality" of a tree is irrelevant to its ability to provide oxygen, regulate rainfall, limit erosion and flooding, enrich soil, and provide fish and wildlife habitat in a forest ecosystem. 

Likewise, how straight a tree grows has nothing to do with carbon storage. While climate change is a major impetus for bioenergy subsidies, science and common sense demonstrate that a standing forest is the most effective (and cheapest) climate buffer.  

Even if we ignore the evidence and choose to believe that the biomass industry only uses forest "waste," the majority of logging operations on public and private land still degrade forest ecosystems, and hauling out the high-nutrient treetops and branches deprives soils of fertility. 

Further, much of this "waste" is already spoken for and is in high demand by the mulch, particle board, and paper industries, with this competition for a limited resource inevitably resulting in more acres logged.



Top 10 Biomass Stories in the News

Follow The Biomass Monitor on Facebook and Twitter for breaking news on biomass energy. 

1. Biofuel Crops Put Human Health at Risk

2. 58-Megawatt Biomass Power Facility Planned for Colbert, Georgia

3. When is a Tree a Tree and Why Does That Matter for the Clean Power Plan?

4. Hillary Clinton's Clean Energy Plan is a Farce

5. Federal Court Slams Ethanol and EPA

6. Incinerator Impacts on Births Warrants Further Study

7. Trash Incineration Technology Not Proven

8. Phoenix, Arizona Mulling Trash Incineration

9. Iowa Ethanol Facility Fined $10,000 for Air Quality Violations

10. Ethanol Tanker Explosions in Ohio and Wisconsin



Energy's Water Footprint

Drought in the western U.S. is in the news every day, yet most media coverage ignores the impact from water withdrawals for industrial power facilities. While municipal and agricultural use are major drains on limited water resources, so too are biomass, coal, and natural gas power facilities. 

Join The Biomass Monitor on Thursday, August 20 at 5 pm PT (8 ET) where we speak with Stacy Tellinghuisen, Senior Energy/Water Policy Analyst with Western Resource Advocates, about the findings of her report, "Every Drop Counts: Valuing the Water Used to Generate Electricity," and learn about the water demands of electricity-generating power facilities and lower-impact alternatives.

RSVP on Facebook or email thebiomassmonitor [AT] for call in number.

Download the audio file for July's call, "Is Biomass and Trash Incineration Zero Waste?"