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A Hard-Headed Look at Biomass


One way to avoid unpleasant or dangerous surprises is to take a hard-headed look at apparent “good deals” before committing to them, despite the enthusiasm that any alleged “good deal” is bound to generate. Of course such a rational approach risks being labeled naysaying or obstructionist by those caught up in the enthusiasm.

When it comes to solutions to our energy problems, both global warming and reliance on foreign sources, we have already made some serious mistakes in our rush to develop what had been labeled “green energy resources.” I have in mind the extensive conversion of food and feed crops like corn and soybeans to ethanol to fuel our automobiles. The net energy production and net carbon emissions of that approach to bio-fuels has been challenged by energy experts. In addition, the diversion of food corps to energy production helped drive up food prices around the world. As good as those high food prices may have been for our farmers, high food costs have not been good for the poorer countries of the world. The economic rationality, energy balance, carbon impact, and equity of the federal subsidies to convert food to fuel for our cars are all questionable. Well intended effort to move away from reliance on foreign fossil fuels got hijacked by special interests into something that turns out to be quite wasteful and destructive.

That should provide a warning to us to move more carefully on the latest bio-fuel energy rush, namely the current enthusiasm for burning wood to generate electricity, also subsidized by the federal government and pushed by state mandates. Let’s hope we do not again make a huge economic and environmental mistake.

Let me emphasize that my concern is not simply with the harvest of trees. In Montana and across the West and the nation, there is a significant part of our forested landscapes that is already “human-dominated” in the sense that we have already put in relatively dense road systems, are already managing those lands for timber, and have increasingly built our homes adjacent to or within those forests. Given that significant human presence and activity on those forested landscapes, those lands will always be mix of human and natural systems. I suspect that if our timber management efforts had stayed focused on these already human-dominated lands instead of constantly pushing into higher and more isolated wildlands where timber management got more and more expensive both in dollar and environmental terms, we now would be harvesting a lot more trees than we have for the last two decades.

But, if we are going to avoid another corn-to-ethanol fiasco, we have to make some careful distinctions about scale, technology, and forest ecosystems.

First of all, there is a huge difference between heating a local school building with wood or wood waste and providing fuel to a large wood-fired electric generator. The latter is likely to take tens to hundreds of times more wood and have equally disproportionate impacts. Both types of projects may be classified as “biomass conversion” or the use of “green fuels,” but their very scale changes their character and their environmental impacts.

Some of the nation’s largest electric utilities are proposing building large wood-fired electric generators or re-fueling coal-fired electric generators with wood. In Oregon, Portland General Electric is exploring the possibly of fueling its 585 mw Boardman plant with wood. That is 30 to 100 times the size of most of the forest product mill biomass plants that have been discussed in Montana. Across the southern states and in New England as well as across Britain, large new wood-fired electric generators have been proposed. These plants require so much fuel that the wood has to be shipped hundreds or thousands of miles. To make that economic, the wood has to be heat treated to increase its fuel density. The combination of heat treatment and long distance hauling raises serious questions about the energy and carbon balance associated with it.

Second, proposals for wood-fired electric generation at forest product mill sites seek to make use of both the heat and electricity the plants can produce. They are “combined heat and power” or “cogeneration” facilities. This boosts their economic rationality, their energy efficiency, and their impact on carbon emissions. Stand-alone wood-fired electric generators have to incur considerable expense and use considerable water resources simply to dissipate the waste heat produced. The combined heat and power operations at forest products mills put that heat to use in producing their building materials or paper.

Third, biomass conversion can be a substantially greater threat to our forests than conventional timber management. Since almost all of the biomass found in the forest can be seen as potential fuel, the forest can be stripped bare of all vegetation, sterilized of biological material. This turns the forest into the equivalent of an industrial farm. The multiple-uses that forest management has claimed to focus on for a century or more are abandoned for a simple mining of all of the combustible biological material available. That may be acceptable for tree farms planted on abandoned farmland, but it is unlikely to be acceptable in the public forest lands that in the West are the natural landscapes in which we live, work, and play.

Just because an energy source is biological in origin does not make it “green,” “low carbon,” or safe. We have to look very carefully at each and every proposal, or there is a good chance that we will make another large energy policy mistake that renders us worse off in terms of climate change, environmental damage, and economic well being. There are ways of using biological systems to ease our transition to a lower carbon, locally produced, energy future. But we have to be vigilant if we are going to avoid another bio-fuel boondoggle.

Dr. THOMAS MICHAEL POWER is the author of Lost Landscapes and Failed Economies: the Search for a Value of Place and Post-Cowboy Economics: Pay and Prosperity in the New American West. is former Chair of the Economics Department at the University of Montana, where he currently serves as a Research Professor.

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