Biomass energy worse than coal

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Josh Kelly
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Biomass energy worse than coal

Post by Josh Kelly » Fri Jun 11, 2010 10:23 pm

A study of biomass electricity in Mass. does not look good for the prospects of the Biomass industry to address our energy needs or climate change:

Mass. study: Wood power worse polluter than coal

By STEVE LeBLANC (AP) – 11 hours ago

BOSTON — A new study has found that wood-burning power plants using trees and other "biomass" from New England forests releases more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than coal over time.

The six-month study, commissioned by Massachusetts state environmental officials, found biomass-fired electricity would result in a 3 percent increase in carbon emissions compared to coal-fired electricity by 2050.

Coal is considered one of the chief culprits of greenhouse gas emissions.

The report, conducted by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, concludes that the net cumulative emissions of greenhouse gases from replacing coal-fired plants with biomass would be 3 percent greater by 2050 than from using coal to generate electricity.

Researchers arrived at the figure by comparing how much carbon is emitted into the atmosphere through the burning of wood — what they termed "carbon debt" — with the amount of carbon removed from the atmosphere from the regrowth of forests, or "carbon dividends."

The report found that harvesting trees for biomass facilities could have "significant localized impacts on the landscape, including aesthetic impacts of locally heavy harvesting as well as potential impacts on recreation and tourism."

The study has broad policy implications for states like Massachusetts. And environmental groups called the study "a wake up call."

"The sobering conclusion is that Massachusetts cannot produce very much new energy from forest resources while also protecting the health of our forests and reducing greenhouse gas emissions," said Sue Reid, a staff attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation.

Biomass has long been part of the state's portfolio of renewable energy sources, along with solar, wind and geothermal energy. The Patrick administration has already invested $1 million to jump-start four proposed wood-burning plants in Russell, Greenfield, Springfield and Pittsfield, as it tries to reach the state-mandated goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.

Massachusetts Environmental Secretary Ian Bowles said Thursday the state is now rethinking that policy, including taxpayer incentives for wood-burning plants.

"Now that we know that electricity from biomass harvested from New England forests is not 'carbon neutral' in a timeframe that makes sense given our legal mandate to cut greenhouse gas emissions, we need to re-evaluate our incentives for biomass," he said in a statement accompanying the report.

Biomass plant owners have long argued that it's unfair to lump wood-burning plants in with coal plants. They say that every megawatt of power produced by wood-burning plants replaces a megawatt from a coal plant. But unlike coal, they argue, trees left standing can absorb the carbon dioxide released when wood is burned.

And trees cut down for fuel can be replanted. If done in a sustainable way, they say, the annual growth in trees replanted or left standing will be enough to recapture the carbon being released.

Matthew Wolfe, an executive with Cambridge-based Madera Energy Inc., which is developing the Greenfield plant, said the report ignores the fact that much of the fuel used by biomass plants is waste wood.

"By eliminating biomass as an energy option, you are by default promoting further use of fossil fuels," he said.

The report makes a series of recommendations, including forcing biomass facilities to detail where they get their supply of wood and requiring them to purchase wood from forests with approved forest management plans.

The report also recommends additional environmental protections at locations where trees are being cut down for biomass plants, including "requiring enough coarse woody debris is left on the ground, particularly at nutrient poor sites, to ensure continued soil productivity, as well as sufficient standing dead wildlife trees remain to promote biodiversity."

Bowles commissioned the study after environmental activists warned biomass power plants could add to global warming. Activists are also pushing a Massachusetts ballot question to severely restrict the amount of carbon dioxide the power plants can emit.

Massachusetts is planning a series of hearings on the report beginning in July.

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dbhguru
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Re: Biomass energy worse than coal

Post by dbhguru » Sat Jun 12, 2010 7:13 am

Josh,

We had been holding our collective breath over what MANOMET would conclude. I have no doubts about biomass. It is not environmentally clean and where forests are cut to feed huge plants, the forests take another hit. And MANOMET reached their conclusions despite cutting off carbon sequestration on forests at 100 years. That does not happen. I don't know when a forest breathes out as much CO2 as it takes in, but it is well past 100 years.

The implications for a change of course here Massachusetts have the timber faction up in arms. But you would expect that.

Bob
Robert T. Leverett
Co-founder, Native Native Tree Society
Co-founder and President
Friends of Mohawk Trail State Forest
Co-founder, National Cadre

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gnmcmartin
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Re: Biomass energy worse than coal

Post by gnmcmartin » Sat Jun 12, 2010 9:02 am

ENTS:

You have read elsewhere my opinions of this "biomass" boondoggle. The idea sounds great but there are just too many destructive "side effects." All the wood "residue" should be left in the woods after logging. I even have my doubts about the wisdom of removing as much as we now do for pulpwood. There will be more and more pressure simply to get as much from the woods as possible, leading to even shorter harvest rotations than we have now, which are already massively too short. Soil compaction by the harvesting machinery, which will get bigger and bigger as time goes on is another issue. And if large forest areas are given over to biomass, we have general landscape destruction.

And, has anyone factored in the greenhouse gas emissions by all the harvesting equipment and the trucks taking the stuff to the plant. I hate coal also, but in this respect, the energy output per BTU brought to the plant is much, much less than I can imagine it would be with biomass.

Not to get back on my nat gas idea too much more than I already have, but as far as this aspect goes, the gathering and transporting of nat gas releases less carbon than either biomass or coal.

--Gaines

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James Parton
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Re: Biomass energy worse than coal

Post by James Parton » Sat Jun 12, 2010 9:54 am

Bob,

I never thought a forest would release as much CO2 as it would take in, unless it is dead and rotting.

James
James E Parton
Ovate Course Graduate - Druid Student
Bardic Mentor
New Order of Druids

http://www.druidcircle.org/nod/index.ph ... Itemid=145

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gnmcmartin
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Re: Biomass energy worse than coal

Post by gnmcmartin » Sat Jun 12, 2010 12:50 pm

James:

At some point a forest is more or less in equilibrium as respect to carbon. Bob, speaking of forests in MA, says well past 100 years. I would say well, well past. It depends on the species of trees and other factors. One of the major ones, that may not be figured in some overly simplictic analyses, is the uptake/release of carbon from the forest soil. In any case, a forest that is a thousand years old(I choose 1,000 years to be on the "safe side" here) in MA is probably more or less in equilibrium. Redwood forests would reach equilibrium after much longer.

Let me mention that the kind of forestry I am practicing probably sequesters as much or more carbon for a long period of time than any. I am producing the highest quality logs possible--for the manufacture of fine furniture. The carbon in the wood incorporated in fine furniture will be "sequestered" for a very long time. As the trees I cut are replaced by new ones, more carbon is sequestered. The wood taken to a plant and burned for energy has its carbon released immediately. But, of course, if the wood grows back, the carbon is recaptured. So as far as the wood goes, no carbon is either added or removed from the atmosphere. I would guess that as far as the soil is concerned, carbon will be lost and added to the atmosphere, and may not be recaptured in the soil under forests managed for biomass production. But of course, as I noted above, we also need to factor in the running machinery for harvest and transport, and a bit more for "handling" etc. at the plant.

Money spent on biomass equipment/plants, etc. is much better spent on solar, wind, geothermal, etc.

We shouldn't be too eager to replace wood with other kinds of materials such as plastics, etc. When we use wood, we sequester carbon. Lets not burn wood from our forests--lets use it in other ways.

--Gaines

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James Parton
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Re: Biomass energy worse than coal

Post by James Parton » Sat Jun 12, 2010 9:41 pm

Gaines,

It sounds as if mature second growth forests are superior to old growth forests. My guess is that most younger second growth trees are still growing rapidly and packing on carbon in their wood. Old growth trees grow much more slowly and absorb carbon less. One thing though, on average their larger size means they have more carbon stored.

James
James E Parton
Ovate Course Graduate - Druid Student
Bardic Mentor
New Order of Druids

http://www.druidcircle.org/nod/index.ph ... Itemid=145

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edfrank
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Re: Biomass energy worse than coal

Post by edfrank » Sat Jun 12, 2010 10:07 pm

James,

I don't know that it is true that mature second growth forests are superior to old growth forests in terms of sequestration. The rates of growth in terms of wood volumes in old growth forests is dramatically underestimated by many accounts. The amount of carbon sequestered in forests not only includes those in the wood of the trees, but that stored in the humus and soil in the forest. I don't know that the wood volume in old growth forests is any less than mature second growth. I know there soil is much thinker and contains much more humus in old growth forests. At this point there are many differing models of carbon sequestration that disagree. In articles in the popular press In many of the articles someones opinion based in the current state of knowledge gets reported as fact by a second party, it is all a mess. The arguments that make the most sense to me are that the old growth sequesters the most carbon. At this point all I know for sure is that different published articles have reached different conclusions on carbon sequestration. In this case I don't believe this is a parallel to the climate denialists, but is simply a reflection of the growth of a new field.

Ed
"I love science and it pains me to think that so many are terrified of the subject or feel that choosing science means you cannot also choose compassion, or the arts, or be awe by nature. Science is not meant to cure us of mystery, but to reinvent and revigorate it." by Robert M. Sapolsky

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gnmcmartin
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Re: Biomass energy worse than coal

Post by gnmcmartin » Sun Jun 13, 2010 7:14 am

The most carbon is sequestered in old growth forests. The most additional carbon is removed from the atmosphere in younger second growth forests. At some point the biomass of an old growth forest reaches an upper limit, as does its carbon "storage." Old growth trees do continue to grow and sequester more carbon, but as they grow, others die, fall to the forest floor, and rot, are eaten by termites and other "fauna," or in some cases burn in forest fires, and the carbon is released. Trees don't live forever, nor do they "grow to the sky."

I would think that the carbon storage of a forest soil would also reach some kind of upper limit in most forests. This is trickier, so I say "most." In some forests in some wetter climates, the forest soil can build up organic material for many, many thousands of years, forming a very thick "peat-like" layer. The area know known as Dolly Sods in VW had a buildup of this kind, and that, unfortunately, was burned after the forest was logged. Under current climatic conditions it is doubtful that anything like that could ever form again.

--Gaines

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Will Blozan
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Re: Biomass energy worse than coal

Post by Will Blozan » Sun Jun 13, 2010 10:00 am

ENTS,

This is an immensely fascinating topic to me. What needs to happen, from this arborists perspective, is for someone to fund an aerial assessment of biomass in forests of different age, species, location, disturbance, etc. and settle this bickering once and for all. Once the numbers are in and the factors for carbon stored by species (and released by leaves, rotting deadwood, flowers, seeds, etc), soil carbon storgae and release, etc. are plugged in we can have a better idea of what is really going on. Such a detailed assessment would bypass the ridiculus assumptions and allometric formulae that are to generalized.

In fact, I was talking to someone this week about a study near the Chesapeak Bay (Smithsonian) that is looking at growth response in native and plantation forests. Linked to carbon storage and managment efficiency, it sounds like this study is basing the entire results on diameter response at BH!!! Ugh.

We need to get off the ground and apply the whole-tree mapping methodologies to address this issue. Also, since tree mapping is a permanant record and essentially a permanant plot, the same trees can be measured again and again to observe changes over time. This is what is going on in the sequoia work in CA. Time to bring it home!

Will

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edfrank
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Re: Biomass energy worse than coal

Post by edfrank » Sun Jun 13, 2010 10:15 am

You would also need to look at rate of sequestration, not just the amount, because at some point because of a finite sotrage capacity the sequestration of new carbon would approach the rate of carbon being released by the sytem. And then what is the mean time before the system approaches this steady state, or at least a slow uptake rate. Another question would be involve the time before the system burped. For example in a fire dominated ecosystem, the trees and soil would retain carbon for a period until the next massive forest fire and then release it as a "burp" into the atmosphere as the forest and soils burned. Other types of forest system reinitiations may not be as dramatic, but likewise would create periodic larger releases of CO2 and what isthe period between these burps?
"I love science and it pains me to think that so many are terrified of the subject or feel that choosing science means you cannot also choose compassion, or the arts, or be awe by nature. Science is not meant to cure us of mystery, but to reinvent and revigorate it." by Robert M. Sapolsky

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