Burning Forests for Electricity

“All technology should be assumed guilty until proven innocent.”

—David Brower

Like one might expect from a Dr. Seuss character, the Once-ler of old has morphed into the Renew-ler in these “Sustainable” times. The modern day Thneed is electrical power. His allies are a mix of industrialists, politicians and co-opted “greens.” The end result: a forest vacuumed of all life; remains the same.

Coming Soon to a Forest Near You

On a daily basis of late, plans are unveiled for new biomass “renewable energy” electricity plants nationwide, complete with State and Federal “Renewable Energy Tax Credits.” Over 100 are already up and running or approved and under construction. Another 200 are in the approval process. Ten in Michigan; six in Arkansas; three in Massachusetts; two in Georgia; three in Maine; three in Florida; …even one in swanky Vail, Colorado. If a state has trees, it has a burner(s) on the drawing board. Of all the proposals working their way through state governments, only those in Oregon have been (so far) thwarted. There, Governor Ted Kulongoski has vetoed legislation giving the renewable tax credit designation to existing Timber Industry wood-to-electricity and existing garbage burner electricity plants that sailed through Oregon’s Democrat-dominated Legislature with GOP support. On the other hand, Kulongoski and Oregon have given their renewable energy tax imprimatur to giant wind farms. For some 3550 megawatts of peak production, Oregon is handing these private wind power producers a projected $144 million in tax subsidies this biennium alone. But, that’s a different part of the story.

The Biomass generating facilities use steam boilers which drive the generators. The technology has been around since the days when Westinghouse and Edison battled it out for supremacy in our newly electron-lit world. (Edison envisioned a coal-fired plant every few blocks.) It’s such a long-standing technology that two-thirds of the nation’s 145 coal-fired steam-to-electricity plants have been in operation since before (despite?) Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1970.

What’s new is the fuel. Instead of the usual dirty coal, or the more expensive natural gas or oil firing the boilers, these new plants burn “Biomass” – forests. The already operating plan is to grind up small diameter trees, understory plants, dead standing trees (snags) and fallen woody debris (read: future soils) and then using the resulting “hog fuel” to run the boilers.

The first such facility not adjunct to a timber mill, but solely for electricity production, has been in operation for 25 years at Avista’s Kettle Falls Generating Station along the Columbia River in NE Washington. This one plant burns 70 tons (140,000 pounds or two semi-truck loads) per hour, generating 53 megawatts of electricity. Of course, it takes far longer than an hour for Nature to create 70 tons of wood fiber. And, then there are a host of other issues: from pollution to ecosystem degradation. Here’s a short promotional video from Avista on how it all works:

The Justifying Disinformation

The rationales for providing electricity this way are: it gives off less pollution; the trees are going to waste anyway; the trees are a fire threat; and, the ever fungible – it’s sustainable/renewable.

Overall, electricity generation is the most polluting industry in the country. And, all one needs do is check out the monstrosity of “Mountaintop Removal” coal extraction to see the immense cost of traditional coal – the source of 57% of our electricity.

As of 2002, 63% of sulfur dioxide emissions (read: acid rain); 22% of NOx – nitrogen oxide (smog); 39% of carbon (climate change); and, 33% of mercury (all sorts of health threats) were identified by the Environmental Protection Agency as resulting from electricity generation using coal-fired steam generators. Hydroelectricity has its own set of tragic eco-costs (dead salmon) as does wind power (carbon-intensive production materials and area-wide impacts – roads, noise, viewshed, wildlife) and solar (toxic ingredients). Wind, solar, tidal and other intermittent forms of electricity production also fail to provide the steady uninterrupted power the nation’s power grid requires, unlike steam plants which is a major motivator for biomass.

Biomass plants hardly diminish steam/electricity’s sorry pollution record. In fact, NOx is a huge issue due to the high nitrogen content of biomass. Such fuels also emit far more carbon monoxide (CO) than the typical dirty coal plant.

Such burners also give off a lot of carbon dioxide (CO2) – the main greenhouse gas. CO2 emissions per BTU from a “green” wood biomass burner, as written into provisions of H.R. 2454: American Clean Energy and Security Act 2009 (Waxman/Markey) and endorsed by the Big Greens are greater than those from an old coal-fired power plant. In comparison, living forests sequester up to 30% of all CO2 emitted from all sources. The collection and transportation of biomass fuels adds considerably to the net pollution.

Human Health

The greatest threat to human health are the microscopic particulates -“nanoparticles” – which are resistant to current pollution control technologies and are rarely even measured, much less regulated. Yet, they are very present in the ash that biomass, garbage and coal burners currently create. Physicians for Social Responsibility has led the way on fighting the particulate menace.

Just recently, scientists have proven that nanoparticles of titanium dioxide (TiO2) can travel directly from the nose to the brain, causing cell damage. TiO2 is an ever present carcinogen that is abundant in power plant emissions. It’s also incredibly found in paint and a host of cosmetic products, notably sunscreen. It’s even added to food as a coloring or a way to keep colors from blending; found in cottage cheese, horseradish and numerous sauces, among other foodstuffs.

Waste? In Nature?

There is no such thing as “waste” in nature. Everything has its purpose. Heavy equipment and roads necessary for the collection and transportation of biomass fuels and the removal itself robs nutrients, fouls water, compacts soils and degrades habitat – some estimates are that over 30% of all bird species depend on dead trees. Past misguided efforts removing dead trees as “Fire Hazards” have already led to a short supply of nesting, foraging and roosting opportunities.


Studies have consistently shown that efforts to “fire-proof the forests” (now there’s an oxymoron) by “fuel reduction projects” are counterproductive. It is questionable whether removing biomass has any ameliorative effect on reducing wildfires. In fact, like all biomass rationales, the opposite is true. Not only does removing the biomass release more carbon than a fire racing through the same “biomass” would, the biomass-stripped remaining forest has been shown to be less fire-resistant. Even if a forest burns, it releases less carbon to never “salvage” the remaining biomass. Just letting the forest recover naturally has been proven to return the forest to carbon sequestration far more quickly than any “salvage” and plant management.

A recent study published in the professional journal Ecological Applications notes that “fuel reduction treatments” (i.e., biomass removal) cripple the forest’s ability to sequester carbon “over the next 100 years.” This results in a major carbon output into the atmosphere that would otherwise be captured.

Another study has shown that if our forests were managed solely for carbon sequestration, they would double or triple the amount of carbon sequestered.

Ecologist George Weurthner, an expert on wildfire, recently wrote an essay debunking the entire rationale that the forests are “unhealthy” and need to be thinned for any reason; “A forest with a lot of dead trees is actually a sign of a healthy forest ecosystem. There are even some ecologists who believe we don’t have enough dead trees.”

Sustainable? Of course not

Number of years the United States could meet its energy needs by burning all its trees: 1

—Harper’s Index for January 2006

Cui Bono?

This biomass scourge, indeed the entire “renewable” energy industry, is motivated by one thing only: money – tax money; ratepayers’ money. All the other rationales are flimsy smokescreens, easily disproven disinformation.

It’s brought in tens of millions of pork to forested states. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) brag about the 58,000 jobs the biomass removal for fire-proofing will create. Already legions of young workers are roaming the forests with chainsaws – cutting the biggest available trees first, of course. The cut on nationwide public lands alone is projected to double, possibly triple, as per DeFazio’s bragging. The issue for Public Lands’ logging has shifted from the clear-cutting of the remnants of our irreplaceable Ancient Forests in the Northwest (basically, it’s either been cut, or has some sort of protection and/or citizens ever ready to defend their favorite places). The nationwide second and third-growth forests are now under siege.

The Timber Industry, like Utilities, among our most subsidized industries, has leapt at the idea of getting even more tax dollars and is the force behind many of the biomass generating facilities. Barron’s recently reported “Timber prices could be vulnerable to a decline of as much as 50% in coming years.” With the housing industry in the worst downturn in decades and global timber prices in free fall, the industry and its captive politicians (and crassly self-promotional “environmentalists”) have been the driving force behind the “Forest Health” lie and have now successfully come up with a use of the “product.”

Big Timber is becoming Big Hog Fuel on the taxpayers’ dime. It’s analogous to the late 19th Century when the timber industry leveled Michigan and Wisconsin forests and then morphed into utilities (one, a subsidized private company ludicrously named Consumers’ Power) and built hydroelectric dams along the degraded Au Sable and other rivers that industry once commandeered as highways to transport logs. Those very same forests – now public-owned national forests, replanted by legions of kids and Kiwanis Clubs; finally recovering over a century later, are now targets of the Hog Fuel industry.

Though the Big Greens will gladly do it for them (and are), the Electric Utilities can Greenwash themselves and grab tax credits at an even greater rate than Big Timber. All they have to do is cry, “We thneed it” and the politicians take note. All that money Oregon is lavishing on Big Wind – foregoing all property and payroll taxes for 12 to 15 years – produces little in the way of local jobs and the power is mostly shipped to California.

Yet, the Northwest Power Planning and Conservation Council, a sub-set of the government-owned Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) just released a report noting that the Northwest can meet 85 percent of its new electricity needs over the next 20 years solely through conservation, and do so at half the cost of building power plants of any type. Every five years a review is made and the report is used to make plans for the BPA and the 147 consumer-owned utilities to which it sells power. Private utilities are livid as their plan is to always cry “thneed” and build more; charging the ratepayers for all new facilities.

And, last, but never least, there are the usual enablers: foundation-supported “Greens” and the “we’re not the corporate pawn GOP, but we’re close enough” industry-supported Democrats.

MICHAEL DONNELLY agrees with Archdruid Brower on such things. He’s not at all convinced the six solar-power systems he has installed for himself and friends are an ecological plus, or even a neutral. But, he knows an ominous, greenwash scam when he sees one. He can be reached at pahtoo@aol.com










MICHAEL DONNELLY has been an environmental activist since before that first Earth Day. He was in the thick of the Pacific Northwest Ancient Forest Campaign; garnering some collective victories and lamenting numerous defeats. He can be reached at pahtoo@aol.com