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Burn a Tree to Save the Planet? The Crazy Logic Behind Biomass

It might seem crazy that anyone would think the incineration of wood and its byproducts are a green substitute for toxic fuels such as coal. Think again.
 
 
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Fire up your chainsaw and cut down a tree. Not so you can decorate it for the Christmas holiday; so you can set it on fire to help combat global warming. That's right, burn a tree to save the planet. That's the notion behind biomass, the new (yet ancient) technology of burning wood to produce energy.

It might seem crazy that anyone would even consider the incineration of wood and its byproducts to be a green substitute for toxic fuels such as coal. Yet that's exactly what is happening all over the country, and it has many environmentalists scratching their heads in disbelief.

Wood waste, such as forest trimmings and other agricultural debris, is being used in numerous power plants across the country with the impression that it is a renewable, green resource.

"People get easily confused by biomass because it is always lumped in with other green technologies," said environmental activist and filmmaker Jeff Gibbs, who co-produced Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11." "Burning our trees in the name of renewable energy to produce power is about as Machiavellian as it gets."

NASA's James Hansen says that the burning of coal is the single largest contributor to anthropogenic global warming, so any alternative fuel source must decrease the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) released into the atmosphere if we are to put the breaks on climate change. Biomass, despite its label as a renewable energy source, does not solve the problem because burning trees actually emits a large amount of CO2.

Proponents counter that biomass only releases as much CO2 as the trees absorb while growing in nature. So as long as replacement trees are grown at the same rate they are burned in incinerators, biomass will always be carbon neutral.

"Emissions from a biomass facility are substantially lower than those from fossil fuel-based energy sources," Matt Wolfe of Madera Energy, developer of the Pioneer Renewable Energy project, said in a public hearing in Massachusetts earlier this year. "Is biomass perfect? No, of course not," Wolfe added. "But you have to consider what the alternatives are. Low-emission, advanced biomass technology is a much cleaner source of power than coal or oil. We should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good."

An article in Science released last October attempted to debunk the myth that biomass is a good alternative to traditional coal and oil burning. The study, authored by climate scientists, claimed that when an existing forest is chopped and cleared to produce fuel, the ability of those harvested trees to absorb CO2 is eliminated entirely while the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere actually increases.

"The game is up," stated biomass skeptic Ellen Moyer, a principal of green engineering firm Greenvironment, after the release of the report. "The problem has been identified, and the clarion call for course correction has rung out around the world. The days of biomass burning ... are numbered and pending legislation needs to be corrected before perverse incentives to burn our forests are enshrined in law."

Moyer's proclamation that the jig is up may be a bit premature. Biomass is largely subsidized by state and federal governments, and with the help of the Obama administration seems to have a bright future as a significant source of energy in the United States. In fact, a recent federal report says that approximately 368 million tons of wood could be removed from our national forests every year. The current climate legislation hung up in Congress also includes biomass alongside wind and solar power as a source of renewable energy.

Last summer Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack confirmed that the government would invest $57 million on 30 different projects that support the development of biomass from trees.

"Emerging markets for carbon and sustainable bioenergy will provide landowners with expanded economic incentives to maintain and restore forests," Vilsack said.

This new government initiative was likely marshaled by Forest Service veteran Tom Tidwell, who was Vilsack's pick for the powerful slot of Undersecretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and the Environment, a position that, among its other responsibilities, places Tidwell in control of the U.S. Forest Service.

"We know [Tidwell] well and we look forward to working with him," Montana Wood Products Association President, Chuck Roady, told Evergreen Magazine after Tidwell's confirmation.

"He certainly understands the plight of western Montana's sawmills and he understands our forests and their biomass potential," added Roady, who is also the general manager of Montana's oldest lumber company, Stoltze Lumber, which hopes to construct a biomass power plant at its milling site in the Big Sky state.

Another problem with biomass is that it is typically mixed with substances like coal to produce energy. In Nevada, for example, NV Energy is set to use a mix of coal and wood at its Reid Gardner coal-fired power plant. As a result, the company hopes to qualify for the state's renewable energy credits. The 750 tons of wood chips that will be used in the initial test project at the coal plant will be harvested from a section of Arizona's Kaibab National Forest in an area that was hit by a wildfire three years ago.

If a coal-fired power plant receiving energy credits isn't mind boggling enough, take what is happening at biomass facilities in Michigan that are burning not only old homes and construction debris, but also tires. The Lincoln and the McBain power stations in Michigan both burn tires as a secondary fuel source in their green biomass plants.

That's not all. The Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Biomass Facility, located in the heart of Motor City, doesn't only use wood and tire fragments, it also burns trash, and lots of it; over 6 million pounds every single day. That's right: "renewable" garbage: soiled diapers, old cereal boxes, filthy mattresses and even motor oil go up in flames in order to provide electricity to Detroit residents.

"Most of the trash is not Detroit's trash," lamented City Councilwoman Joann Watson, who is joining environmentalists to fight the plant, noting huge increases in asthma rates around the facility. "Why should our children, our elderly, our people have to breathe it? What level of toxicity is acceptable?"

Down in North Carolina the situation does not seem much better. A biomass plant there even plans on firing up chicken shit along with wood to produce power.

"They are burning more than trees because wood is simply not a good energy source," said Jeff Gibbs, who resides in Michigan and is fighting the state's six operating biomass plants. "Look, wood produces 50 percent more CO2 than coal, for the same amount of energy output. We have to stop this before more plants begin to pop up."

Not only is biomass not a good source of power, claims a 2007 paper presented at the European Aerosol Conference, it's also not a healthy alternative to coal. The paper claimed that particulate matter (particles, such as dust, dirt, soot or smoke) was actually higher for a 7 megawatt wood gasification plant than it was for a large coal-fired power station.

And particulate matter (PM) is very dangerous. The EPA asserts that it can cause asthma, chronic bronchitis and even premature death in people with heart or lung disease. On the environmental side, PM can change the nutrient values in water bodies, turning streams and lakes acidic.

"At every turn biomass is a complete and utter train wreck," added Gibbs. "Chopping up and burning whole trees will not conquer global warming, it will only exacerbate the problem beyond the point of no return."

Joshua Frank is an environmental journalist and author of "Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush." He is co-editor, with Jeffrey St. Clair, of "Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland." Frank and St. Clair are also the authors of the forthcoming book, "Green Scare: The New War on Environmentalism." He can be reached at brickburner@gmail.com.
 
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