Biomass is the burning of wood for electricity. Some claim this reduces carbon emissions because trees burned for energy eventually grow back, re-sequestering the carbon released by burning the fuel. For example, about half of the European Union’s renewable electricity now comes from biomass (and most of that wood comes from the American Southeast’s fast-growing pine farms).
However, 350.org founder Bill McKibben explains why this doesn’t work:
“Burning wood to generate electricity expels a big puff of carbon into the atmosphere now. Eventually, if the forest regrows, that carbon will be sucked back up. But eventually will be too long…we’re going to break the back of the climate system in the next few decades. For all intents and purposes, in the short term, wood is just another fossil fuel, and in climate terms the short term is mostly what matters.”
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, biomass also lets utilities off the hook, allowing them to meet renewable energy laws with fewer cleaner energy sources such as solar and wind.
Moreover, biomass burning emits particulate pollution that’s unhealthy to breathe, and the common practice of cutting relatively young trees for biomass prevents forests from sequestering more carbon in middle age when they do it best.
These are serious problems. Still, at 350 Spokane we also acknowledge the geographical differences involved in biomass.
Here in Northeastern Washington a small amount of our electricity is generated by burning wood waste from Colville’s forestry operations, which offsets a little of our local reliance on climate-killing gas and coal-fired power (currently 44% of Avista’s electricity). This is far less harmful than the widespread dedication of our nation’s southern pine forests to produce wood pellets that are shipped thousands of miles at high carbon cost just so Europe can claim green energy, which studies suggest is actually worse than burning coal. Of course we would rather see Avista meet renewable energy requirements with even cleaner sources than this small biomass burner, but it isn’t our top priority.
We also recognize that biomass has little to do with deforestation, which is due primarily to the replacement of precious tropical forests with pastures and plantations, not to producing wood pellets from easily regrown temperate softwoods. Some studies even suggest that biomass can help reduce deforestation by giving landowners an economic incentive to keep their land in trees.
Although the biomass question isn’t entirely clear cut, so to speak, numerous studies show that on a global scale biomass does more harm than good. Renewable energy efforts should focus on cleaner sources than this.