I am going to try something a little different here at the Green Living Library. In the past I have focused on providing articles that provided practical information and how to’s on many different aspects of living a green life. I will continue to do that but every now and then when the mood strikes me I will pluck an article from the internet and analyze it from my perspective. I will tell you what I think of the article where I agree and disagree with what the author is proposing.
Please read the article at the link above before diving into my thoughts on the subject
Here it goes…
Europe’s renewable energy policy is built on burning American trees
Biomass energy is inadvertently making the climate crisis worse.
What I think the author is trying to get across is that biomass energy in this particular case wood pellets are not carbon neutral like the industry likes to claim. The author actually asserts they are making things worse with tricky accounting and that they lack appreciation for the full carbon cost of the wood pellet product. He also seems to imply that it not a good solution to help reduce carbon and combat climate change.
Where we agree
As far as I am concerned he nailed it right on the head with the fact not opinion that biomass energy is not carbon neutral. It is not carbon neutral by a long shot given a couple of reasons.
All the trees are harvested using fossil fuel built and operated machines. This adds to the carbon debt found within each tree. From the chain saw that cuts it down to the machine that hauls it to the plant to the plant itself which in many cases runs on fossil fuels.
Transportation of the raw and final product has a huge impact on the carbon embodied in this product. According to the author,
“There are few bigger players in the biomass industry than Drax Group, whose flagship power plant in the north of England sucks up nearly a quarter of global wood pellet production, about two-thirds of it from the US.”
Think about that for a second, trees that are harvested in the United States are shipped across the Atlantic to be burned in power plants in England. Something about that just seems odd when you look at it from a carbon neutrality perspective. The odd part being there is no way that it can be carbon neutral when it traveled at least 3500 miles to get there.
I also agree with the author that the biomass industry is blissfully ignoring key facets of their operation when they are stating they are carbon neutral. But some of this blame could also be firmly placed on the countries that buy all this fuel in order to meet their Paris Climate accord targets. They are basically throwing on band aid to slow the carbon bleed when they really need is a tourniquet and stitches to really slow that flow down.
Where we disagree
I get the impression that the author basically thinks that biomass is a bad idea and we should toss it out the window. I don’t believe there is a case yet to condemn the whole industry and I think it has some merits that should be brought up.
If this industry is used properly it can provide incentive to thin forest stands back to a healthier density which allows a resource that would have been wasted to be used. My reasoning behind this is the primary driver of forest stand change is fire. When a forest becomes dense with trees and other woody growth it becomes much more susceptible to catastrophic fire events. I would argue that a poorly managed forest that burns will release far more carbon than managed forests that generate biomass energy. If the wood is destined to burn anyways we might as well get something out of it.
That being said biomass is much more suited to being a local source of heat or electric generation. The farther you have to move it from where it grew the more of a carbon debt will occur. So instead of shipping wood and wood pellets to Europe we should be using them locally to reduce our carbon footprint.
Another point I would like to bring up is the assertion that old established forests are better at absorbing carbon than younger growing forests. Frankly the science on this topic is a bit mushy and you can find research to back up both. That way I like to look at it is to think about when you were growing up. Do you need more or less food now than you did when you were a teenager that was still growing? For most of us if we are being honest with ourselves would say we need less food now. Our bodies have a reach a state of equilibrium we still need food to live but not near as much because we are not adding to our size very much anymore (excluding those who are trying to add muscle). The same idea can be applied to trees by substituting carbon for food. The older the tree the less carbon it takes in to further increase it mass and a good chunk of that carbon is released when leaves are dropped and braches are shed.
A way forward for biomass energy
One point that author makes/qoutes about bioenergy and it history I whole heartedly agree with,
“In the 19th century, the scientists concluded, “the use of wood for bioenergy helped drive the near deforestation of western Europe even when Europeans consumed far less energy than they do today.” Fossil fuel energy saved the forests, they wrote, but now the solution is “not to go back to burning forests, but instead to replace fossil fuels with low carbon sources, such as solar and wind.”
Before the advent of fossil fuels Europe really was in danger of cutting downs all it forests. Since we now live an energy intensive age it would impossible to use less than they did 200 years ago. Even with the best efficiency technology available it would not happen.
But you notice at the end of the quote where they talked about solar and wind power. It obvious to anyone willing to open their eyes that renewable's like solar, wind, hydro and geothermal are the power sources of the future. But if we are going to be honest these sources of energy can be fickle and not provide the same energy amount all the time.
This is where I think transitioning to biomass energy as a backup to supplement the advance of solar and wind would be a great step. Eventually storage technologies like batteries, compressed air, hydrogen fuels should make even biomass energy obsolete but until then we should have something that can help keep things on when we need them to be.
Right at the end of the article the author has this witty piece of writing,
“And so we sail on into a darkening future, burning the forests to save them.”
I know right it has just the right amount of snap to it but despite how well written it is I think is just further shows the authors opinion that biomass is bad. Biomass isn’t bad it’s a tool that we can use to help us transition to and maintain a much cleaner energy future. So here is my attempt to revise that snappy bit of writing.
“And so sail we towards a brighter future using the forests to help light the way”
Green Living Library
Hello my name is Josh Larson and I am the creator of the Green Living Library. Here on the blog you will find updates to content found in the Green Living Library as well as stories from those living the sustainable life already.