What’s Wrong With Biomass Burning? Everything.
The McNeil Biomass Burner in Burlington Vermont, is the state’s single source of air pollution. Photo George Wuerthner
Presently around the West, the Forest Service, timber advocates, and far too many conservation organizations are promoting biofuels and biomass energy as “Green Energy.” The FS and its allies want to cut more wood (which they term fuels or “waste” while I call it wildlife habitat and carbon storage) from the forest and use it to produce some products that society values, like jet fuel or even heating buildings.
But the only thing “green” about biomass energy or fuel is the subsidies that government agencies bestow.
Those promoting the biomass fuel and energy juggernaut suggest that burning wood is “clean energy “and carbon neutral. However, biofuels and biomass energy are not clean, not carbon neutral, and not sustainable.
For instance, the City of Prineville, Oregon, promotes the construction of a 20 MW biomass burner. In their promotional literature, the city says: “The City and County will utilize the PREP to reduce the risk of severe wildfires, reinvent jobs in the natural resources/forest products industries, diversify energy supplies, reduce CO2 emissions, and reinvigorate the community and local economy, all while offering a clean, renewable energy source.”
In announcing its intention to construct biomass burners, Mount Bachelor Ski Resort makes the same happy talk about the benefits of wood-burning biomass.
And just this week in California, another biomass burner is about to be constructed in Birney–with the same delusional remarks about “clean” energy and how it will convert “waste” wood into electrical power.
Prineville, Mount Bachelor, and other promoters of biomass are feeding the public timber and biomass industry propaganda. I am sure they believe what they are saying but ignore contrary information.
SUBSIDIES AND ECONOMICS
Most biomass burners are not economical. They often receive massive subsidies of two kinds—direct funding from government agencies and the environmental damage they promote.
Logging on the Deschutes NF in Oregon done to “reduce” wildfire eliminates biomass and carbon storage, destroys wildlife habitat, and fails to preclude large wildfires. Photo George Wuerthner
In most cases in the West, the wood source or “fuel” for biomass operations results from deforestation. These deforestation projects destroy biodiversity, pollute the land and air, and worsen climate change. And like almost all Forest Service logging projects, they also lose money, so they are yet another form of subsidy.
The other subsidies are direct grants and funding that biomass projects receive from government sources.
Recently the City of Prineville received a million-dollar grant from the Forest Service to help construct its proposed biomass burner.
The biomass burner being constructed in Burney, California received a $5 million dollar grant.
Like other projects, Mount Bachelor’s proposed biomass burner is subsidized with state and federal government grants. So why should taxpayers be funding a private business?
Red Rocks Biofuel Plant in Lakeview, Oregon was subsidized by hundreds of millions of dollars, and never opened. Photo Herald and News
An even worse waste of tax dollars is the Red Rocks Biofuel plant in Lakeview, Oregon which has received over $350 million in public funding. Making these subsidies all the more disastrous is that the Red Rocks plant has never opened and recently went bankrupt.
The Red Rocks proposal was supported by a $75 million funding award from the Department of Defense, more than $2 million in infrastructure improvement from the town of Lakeview, and about $300 million in tax-exempt economic development bonds issued in 2018 through the state of Oregon. Unfortunately, all of these taxpayers and bondholders are losers.
The only good thing about the demise of the Red Rocks Biofuel project is that it means fewer trees will be logged to supply the plant with its biomas from the Fremont National Forest.
Due to the cost of transportation, cutting trees for wood burner operations typically is only economical for a 25–35-mile radius. Two things occur as a result.
First, biomass burners must bring fuel from more distant sources, which adds to their costs, often absorbed by ratepayers or government subsidies. The burner operations put more pressure on federal and state forests to provide more local fuel, which can lead to even more significant deforestation.
Furthermore, they remove funding from less polluting and destructive projects like distributed solar.
Another problem with the moniker that biomass is “clean” is that they pollute the atmosphere with carbon and toxins that are damaging to health. Participant matter from burner emissions is continuous throughout the year rather than associated with one-time seasonal events like wildfires. People with asthma and other breathing issues are vulnerable to emissions.
The McNeil Biomass Plant in Burlington Vermont emitting air pollution even in winter. Biomass plants produce air pollution year round, while wildfire is seasonal. Photo George Wuerthner
Proponents argue that biomass burners operate at high temperatures that eliminate most toxins. But they don’t tell the public that during the start-up and shutdown phase, burners operate at far lower temperatures and emit significant amounts of pollutants during these periods.
Even worse for the atmosphere and human health is that biomass burners often consume the available nearby wood and then start to include building waste, railroad ties, tires, and other materials that contain numerous toxic materials in the mix.
WOOD IS AN INEFFICIENT ENERGY SOURCE
Because wood is less “energy dense” than alternatives from coal to natural gas, it requires more of it to produce the same amount of heat or “work” as producing electricity. So to get the same amount of energy for generators, wood-burning operations release far more carbon per unit of electrical power than alternative fuels. I’m not arguing that we should burn fossil fuels-we need to reduce all forms of carbon fuel sources, but believing that the substitution of wood is better than other fuels is misleading.
Burning wood is worse than burning coal because it emits more pollution per unit of electricity. Photo George Wuerthner
Researchers working with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) concluded that a wood-burning plant would have higher net carbon emissions than a comparable coal plant for the first 4 decades or more of operations.
The problem for society is that we must reduce all carbon emissions now. If the ice sheets melt in the next 20-30 years and flood places like Miami or New Orleans, it doesn’t matter if, in 40-50 years, burning wood might have less overall emissions (due to carbon capture by the new growth of trees over decades).
Logging the forest releases stored carbon. Industry shills suggest that burning wood is different from burning natural gas or other fossil fuels because it is “biogenic carbon,” meaning the growth of trees produces it, thus carbon “neutral.”
Logging in Oregon easily contributes far more carbon into the atmosphere than even the worse large blazes. Indeed, 35% of Oregon’s carbon is the result of logging.
An article in Earth Island Institute provides some clarity on wood and carbon. “About 28 percent of tree carbon is contained in branches, which is emitted when burned after logging operations. An additional 53 percent of the carbon in trees removed from forests is emitted as waste in the manufacturing and milling process. Overall, about two-thirds of the carbon in trees that are logged for lumber quickly become greenhouse gas emissions.” Since biomass operations burn an even greater amount of the tree (like branches), the amount of carbon released is significantly greater.
The green piece of the pie represents the amount of Carbon emissions from logging and wood products in Oregon.
However, this biocarbon has taken decades to centuries to accumulate but is released immediately when burned. Since most biomass operations use whole trees, they effectively release the bulk of all stored carbon.
Even a forest fire does not release most of the stored carbon. Instead, carbon remains on site as snags, down wood, roots in the ground, and charcoal. Though much of this may be released over time as decomposition occurs, it may take centuries to release all the available carbon in a tree.
Plus logging emissions are far greater than those resulting from wildfires says OSU researcher Bev Law : “When you have a disturbance such as fire, and when wood is removed and harvested and put into wood products, you have to follow the carbon,” she said. “And it turns out that … harvest-related emissions are five to seven times that of the fire emissions in Oregon.”
FLAWED ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT “FUELS” AND FIRES
A further complication is that these projects, often subsidized by state and federal government grants, are based on flawed assumptions about logging projects on public lands. For example, most of these biomass proposals argue that we must reduce the density of trees on forestlands to eliminate or at least diminish major wildfires.
A sign in John Day, Oregon promotes the common myth that logging will reduces fuels, and thus wildfires. Photo George Wuerthner
For instance, the city of Prineville, Oregon, is building a biomass burner using a grant from the Forest Service. Unfortunately, similar biomass burners or other facilities like biomass fuel production, including a plant by Lakeview, Oregon, are all heavily subsided by federal grants, not to mention the removal of wood from forest ecosystems.
All of these projects are using wood cut on national forest lands predicted on the premise that logging will preclude or slow wildfire spread and reduce carbon emissions. However, there is an abundance of scientific studies that present contrary evidence. Climate and weather are the primary drivers of large western blazes, not fuels.
For instance, in 2018, researchers from Oregon State University in Ecological Applications reported: “Daily fire weather was the most important predictor of fire severity, followed by stand age and ownership, followed by topographic features. Estimates of pre-fire forest biomass were not an important predictor of fire severity.”
They conclude: “Our findings suggest intensive plantation forestry characterized by young forests and spatially homogenized fuels, rather than pre-fire biomass, were significant drivers of wildfire severity.”
Similarly, another review paper that looked at 1500 fires in ponderosa pine and mixed conifer forests across the West concluded that active forest management (AKA logging) resulted in higher severity blazes than areas with no logging or other fuel treatments.
One of the best ways we can promote carbon storage is through trees. Proforestation provides a bridge for society that will allow us to move from burning fossil fuels to alternative energy sources (including simply energy conservation through the insulation of structures).
Large old-growth and mature trees stores huge quanities of carbon. The single best use of our national forests is to preserve all forests as carbon reserves. Photo George Wuerthner
Merely allowing trees to mature and grow can store significant amounts of carbon are nearly no cost. The best use of our national forests is not for wood production but for carbon storage. Of course, this would also have ancillary benefits like providing wildlife habitat, preserving wildlands, and reducing government waste (currently going to promote biomass operations).
Bev Law of Oregon State University along with colleagues advocates creating strategic forest reserves to promote carbon storage and biodiversity protection.
As Bill Moomaw of Yale University suggests: “The most effective thing that we can do is to allow trees that are already planted, that are already growing, to continue growing to reach their full ecological potential, to store carbon, and develop a forest that has its full complement of environmental services,” said Moomaw. “Cutting trees to burn them is not a way to get there.”
George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology
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So cut & log the forests & burn the wood – create lots of pollution & remove habitat & carbon “protection” in order for it to be called green????????????
Sure doesnt sound green to me.
The “green” energy scam is going to cause as much harm as anything. People have to grow up and realize that they can’t continue living unnaturally and in gross overpopulation without doing great harm to the Earth, its ecosystems & habitats, and all the life here. Changing sources of energy won’t fix anything substantial and might even cause greater harm. We’re fighting a lithium mine right now at Thacker Pass, NV. That lithium would be used for car batteries for electric cars.
The only choices are to live naturally in ecologically balanced numbers (the latter probably hundreds of times lower than our current population) or to continue to needlessly kill and destroy. Some people view this as advocating that we live horribly, but it’s the exact opposite. Hunter-gatherers, especially those who live in the tropics, do far less work than people living agriculturally, as over 99% of humans now do, and their lives are far less stressful (I’m referring to the bad stress that’s unhealthy).
Furthermore, what humans should be doing is expanding our consciousness, and many if not most hunter-gatherers are far more advanced in that regard than modern humans. Living naturally and in small numbers can be far more rewarding in a deep way than the way we live, but we have to change our focus, from the physical world to our consciousness. Artificially manipulating the physical/natural world only causes great harm and killing, so we should leave it alone and just enjoy it by look-but-don’t-touch, taking only what we need to survive (mostly food & water).
I’m convinced, we cannot help ourselves. Cannot do the right, ethical thing if we tried.
Who on earth would think burning wood again, especially with a large population, less trees, and air pollution, would be a good thing?
Because people have been sold on “green” energy. This crap is an attempt to save our lifestyles instead of saving life on Earth, and the people selling it realize that the vast majority of people don’t want to lower their lifestyles either.
Is that the mine that is threatening the poor little Tiehm’s buckwheat flower?
The company and the Interior Dept. claim that the mine and the flower can coexist, but after only one week the company was already in violation of the ESA.
I’ve heard of wood pellets being touted in Europe, but that seems terribly ill-advised too.
How about burning our trash and plastics? That would seem to be the energy equivalent of the Fountain of Youth, a never-ending supply, especially with landfills being the third largest producer of methane in the country. Why do we insist upon doing environmental harm? Burning wood for fuel would seem to be regressing.
It’s supposed to be a lot ‘cleaner’ than it used to be also.
I assume you’re kidding about burning plastic. Doing so creates dioxin, one of the most toxic chemicals.
Burning wood was probably fine when there were 5-10 million people on the entire planet and people only burned deadwood. There is no solution to this with our gross overpopulation and people living outside the tropics where they need artificial heat to stay warm (other than to greatly lower our population and restrict ourselves to the tropics).
Actually I wasn’t kidding, where I live we have municipal power and there was a waste-to-energy plant where the trash was sent to produce electricity. There are many of these plants around the country and the world. Plastics are petroleum.
It’s supposed to be a much cleaner technology today, and is done in a lot of places.
Our endless trash cannot stay in the ground either, nor in our oceans and on our beaches and in the stomachs of birds and marine mammals, and in microparticles in our water supplies. It’s also a major source of methane.
I cannot see the point of burning wood at all, it’s extremely wasteful and to me is one of the leadup causes to the mess we are in today, and in other countries. We don’t seem to have learned from that.
I think we’re at the point today that no matter what we do, it is damaging.
Burning trash is very environmentally harmful and is not a solution to pollution. The only real solution is to stop creating this crap to begin with. The only real solution to the burning problem is for humans to confine themselves to the tropics so that we don’t need artificial heat. All this other stuff is just dealing with symptoms instead of causes.
BTW, how far do you live from the waste incinerator in your town? Because people around here who live near those damn things want them shut down due to the pollution they cause. Saying the technology is “cleaner” now is just repeating industry propaganda; there’s nothing clean about burning trash.
It’s not far, I live in a semi-rural area – a couple of towns over. I think you can sometimes see steam coming from the stacks.
We used to get a newsletter with our utility company with our bill telling us how much we saved on our electrical use.
But we no longer do, at least our town, and I asked and was told that it was now too ‘expensive’. I guess that is about fees associated with it.
I don’t see how we can afford not to.
We have to stop consuming all this needless crap. We basically shouldn’t be buying anything except food. The packaging industry should be eliminated; things should be sold in bulk with consumers supplying their own containers. Anything that can’t be sold without packaging doesn’t need to be sold.
THAT’s how we afford to stop burning trash: we stop creating it.
That’s great for the future – but we still have to deal with what’s accumulated in the present, and it’s in tonnage. The Pacific Garbage Patch is just one example.
I don’t support nuclear at all either, because we still have no way of disposing of the waste, and yet we forge on ahead with another pie-in-the-sky scheme.
And when there’s the inevitable accident, and with human nature being what it is, there will be – it’s a doozy. We’ve already had 3 Mile Island, Fukushima, and Chernobyl.
I don’t understand why we just can’t seem to go with the simplest of solutions with materials most readily available, everything has to be something grandiose.
Burning wood from trees on federal land has got to be one of the worst, environmentally short-sighted ideas yet.
Waste-to-energy benefits communities by making electricity cheaper, and less trash in the streets.
There is no solution for the trash already created that’s not environmentally and/or ecologically harmful. The problem is the creation of this stuff; what to do with it afterward is just a side effect of that problem.
When do we plan to stop using plastics, anyone know? It’s everywhere and in everything.
I think we should try to pick it up and dispose of it properly, make all bottles return deposit, etc. I can’t believe there are people still against that.
I recycle like a madwoman, it’s a lot of effort sometimes but I simply can’t tolerate the alternative. It just screams laziness and lack of awareness, self-control and self-discipline to me.
It’s like we’ve gotten to the point where it’s ‘choose your poison’ – polluted air or polluted ground water.
On to the next grandiose, destructive scheme then, like offshore wind. No one even really knows if it will be the answer to our Fountain of Energy dreams.
^^I should add that it isn’t as glamorous as bright and shiny wind turbines and solar farm grand ideas (that’s a matter of opinion I suppose). But it would seem to be a lot more practical and helpful, and metals and other recyclable materials get recovered.
I do support rooftop solar.
Amen! I have been following the various threads regarding the future of real green energy (solar, wind, hydro, fashion etc.)and it seems that the future looks better. I have seen predictions from what I consider reputable sources that future green energy costs are going to come way down. Not sure about the time table but there is some reason for optimism. Burning biomass as part of the equation makes no sense. Leave the biomass in place where it belongs so it can enrich the soil.
By the way, I would take nuclear energy, which we already have, over fossil fuels any day of the week.
There’s no such thing as “green” energy. Even solar and wind energy are very ecologically destructive, and if you support dams, you’re an enemy of rivers and all the life in and around them.
The only way to stop doing the great harms caused by humans living unnaturally and in ecologically destructive numbers (aka gross human overpopulation) is to live naturally and greatly lower our population. All else is trying to have your cake and eat it too, which is impossible in this universe.
If you’re interested in the harms caused by so-called “green” energy, read Bright Green Lies or at least watch Planet of the Humans (the book is much better in both explaining the issue and naming the harms with great specificity).
I don’t support dams either – I don’t know that we’ll get rid of them entirely, but keep them to the absolute minimum, and certainly not build more!
I know that the government recommends removing four (!) dams on the lower Snake River.
I must have missed this:
I’m a pretty fair distance away, but have never noticed a stench either:
I assume that is the company that is doing the burning – just pulled up the site – didnt read it.
I think the whole burning plastic/trash was a “thing” quite a few years ago – didnt realize that it had actually gone forward.
I remember reading something a while ago but assumed they had thought better about it & not done it.
I agree there is an unending source for it BUT agree with Jeff – someone somewhere needs to put thought & labor into NOT making MORE plastic!
Biomass burning is a NON ISSUE! really not smart.
Yes, they’re the company. Glass really is a thing of beauty, I think.
And if it washes up on the beach it is also a thing of beauty.
I don’t know if glass has been found in animals’ stomachs. The most awful photo of this stuff I have ever seen is a disposable cigarette lighter in the stomach of a seagull.
Well I have to wonder just how ‘smart’ it is to ignore the problem, and allow it to continue to pile up in landfills, our oceans and beaches.
As I mentioned above, trash is the #3 contributor to greenhouse gases, methane, ends up in the stomachs of wildlife or harms them in other ways, contaminates groundwater, it’s hardly benign.
I have read an article that says with the manufacturing of plastics showing no signs of decreasing and in fact is expected to increase, it said that incinerating our trash may be inevitable in the future.
There’s nothing else we can do with it. Recycling helps, but it’s not enough, with 6.3 billion tons of trash in the world!
And that’s the other thing – it’s all well and good to talk about what people should do, but our behavior says otherwise. We have to work with what we’ve got, I think, and that is tons of plastic, trash and garbage.
The only propaganda I can see is the logging industry promoting the burning of wood – it really is jaw-dropping.
And as they always say ‘the technology will improve all the time’!
Trash burning does create CO2, but not nearly as much as leaving it in the ground in a landfill. I really can’t understand why people hold on to the old ideas of burning from the 70s – it has greatly improved today. You can see from the figures this company provides.
GW knew this and should have corrected his piece.
RRB was recently sold in foreclosure to NEXT Renewable Fuels. NEXT has another planned facility in Oregon. Instead of liquid aviation fuels, the RRB site will now be taking wood from area forests treated with logging and wildland fire abuse and creating methane that will then be pumped into the Ruby Pipeline. Some of the equipment on site that was designed for SAF will be repurposed.
Watch for Wyden/Merkley to reintroduce legislation to allow for the use of biomass on federal lands to support their constituent’s projects and bring home bacon.
So people can’t burn wood in their fireplaces because of air pollution (spare the air, etc.)but it’s fine to burn wood on an industrial level?
I’m convinced humans are dumber every year.
“Spare the Air” is phony crap. If it were real, they’d prevent all use of internal combustion engines on those days, starting with private motor vehicles.
Very compelling article. My state of North Carolina is caught in this wood pellet scam. Enviva has four large wood pellet plants here and their plant just across in SE Virginia is getting most of their logs from NC. They are driving the clear-cut logging of our naturally-generated, mixed-species hardwood forests, including some in wetlands. There is no replanting of hardwood trees. These pellets are mostly being sold to Drax power in the UK, underwritten by massive subsidies from the UK government.
Great post highlighting the dangers of biomass burning. It’s important to consider the environmental impact of this practice and find alternative solutions. Thanks for raising awareness!