Is biomass some great advancement in clean energy?

The world ran on biomass before the mid-19th century-

Biomass is not 21st century energy technology; it is closer to 18th century-

Years ago when I first began to study energy, our economy and environment, I learned that the great advances in the deployment of energy came from the discovery of the fossil fuels — at first peat and coal, then oil, and with the invention of seamless pipe, natural gas. Those economies that developed these fuels grew in size and wealth. They left those that still used wood, dung, and brush and grass far behind.

Now that many of the fossil fuels are considerably depleted with the marginal cost of their added  production rising rapidly and so causing more and more negative byproducts — pollution and disruption caused by their extraction, harm to fish and wildlife, our drinking water, agriculture, and the climate of the entire planet.

“Alternative” fuels are being hailed as a solution, either totally or in part. Non-fossil fuels such as nuclear, hydro, wind, solar, geothermal and biomass are held as a salvation, although hydro, like fossils fuels is probably overdeveloped and nuclear has had many problems in its deployment and use.

Advocates of other “alternative energy” (wind, solar, biomass) sometimes seem not to realize that all energy sources have environment and economics costs as well as the obvious intended benefits. These costs are  both direct and indirect.

What is not understood about biomass is many of the proposals are basically a return to the 18th and earlier centuries ways of generating energy. Burning wood, grass, brush is a return to methods that deforested Europe, early America, Asia, Africa, destroyed the wildlife and is the result and a cause of poverty. We now know it also changes the climate.

There are waste biomass materials such as sawdust, slash, agricultural waste, and building materials otherwise bound for the landfill, but the deliberate growing of plants such as trees or grasses for production of energy on a large scale can and does take from food and more. Consider the huge mistake that corn based ethanol has been. How its use in “gasahol” has run up food prices and damaged the land and water with excessive planting of corn, a plant that badly promotes soil erosion. Some energy crops, such a sugar cane are less destructive, but they far from being free energy from the sun.

True technological advancement in biomass such as the production of fuel and valuable chemicals from gigantic farms filled with genetically enhanced algae might give us a good deal more energy at less cost, but these facilities too will be controversial, take a lot of space, and produce negative by-products on a large scale.

Research in biomass should continue and there should be some deployment of commercial production, but it will never provide a large percentage of the energy needed, and the more space — land and water it requires, the greater impact on wildlife, food, and other products made from plant materials.  Hailed as not a method that will increase our carbon dioxide problem, we are likely to find that biomass production does, and it might cause changes in other basic atmospheric gases such as oxygen, water vapor, and methane.

Montana is a place where a number of plans for biomass have been proposed and abandoned. Here is a bit of news on the latest there. University of Montana scraps biomass heating plant, apologizes for ‘eco-terrorism’ remark. By Chelsi Moy. Missoulian






  1. Nancy Avatar

    “UM has invested $541,000 in the project”

    Bet that chunk of change could of purchased a nice solar energy setup.

  2. Wolfy Avatar

    Here in Upper Michigan, biomass generally means that wood chips, which previously went only to the paper mills, now may go to the electrical generating plant. As with timber anywhere, some loggers still rape the woods that they work in, reducing it to a moonscape. Most loggers, thankfully, still employ the Best Management Practices of good forestry. Waste wood products (such as sawdust and slabs) have been used here for heat and power for decades. The biomass industry here seems to be sustainable, for now.

    1. Nancy Avatar

      Wolfy – it will be interesting to see what happens in the near future to the thousands and thousands of acres of dead and dying timber here in Montana (due to bettle kill) on public lands.

  3. Alan Gregory Avatar

    Missing from mainstream media coverage is this: How much energy is expended to make the stuff vs. how much does the finished product yield.

    1. Wolfy Avatar

      True, Al; there has been little in the media about the fossil fuel costs to produce biomass, similar to the hidden costs of corn ethanol. The true cost-benefit comparison to traditional energy production is probably hard to assess and probably not anything the energy folks want to be published.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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