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Biomass: Not Carbon Neutral and Often Not Clean

biomass danger!

Nathanael Greene, Director of Renewable Energy Policy, New York City

Power companies, facing pressure to find alternatives to fossil fuels like coal, are often consider turning to biomass – an umbrella term for fuel that is newly derived from plant matter.  Until recently, most people including policy makers assumed all biomass was clean and renewable.  But not all biomass is created equal, and our energy policies must distinguish among the good, the bad and the ugly. 

For example, as me and my colleagues have written about before (see here and here for starters), burning whole trees to produce electricity increases carbon pollution compared with fossil fuels for decades into the future. On the other hand, some forms of biomass can reduce carbon pollution and other emissions compared to fossil fuels. 

Regardless of the source of the fuel – low carbon or high carbon –  burning stuff is just inherently a dirty process. The combustion of biomass in power plants releases harmful air pollutants such as particulates, NOx, and SOx. So combustion must occur in plants with high efficiencies and state-of-the art emission controls.  This fact was underscored last week in a new report Trees, Trash, and Toxics: How Bioenergy Has Become the New Coal released by the Partnership for Policy Integrity.

The study represents a significant new contribution to our understanding of the pollution impacts of biopower. Using data from biomass power plant permits, it documents the air pollution emitted by the biomass energy industry, and is an important reminder that poorly regulated biomass-fired power plants are an increasingly significant source of air and climate pollution and a threat to public health. The Partnership’s analyses are critical to our efforts to protect air quality, forest ecosystems, and the Earth’s climate.

I hope the report serves as a fresh reminder to legislators and regulators that bioenergy isn’t inherently clean, renewable or good. Our policies matter and unless we set out standards high, we’ll get a mess–biomess.

Photo Credit: Biomass and Energy Risk/shutterstock

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Discussions

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Apr 11, 2014 12:17 am GMT

With the EPA’s recent emphasis on the huge health impacts of relatively small exposure to particulate material (PM 2.5) and need to reduce fossil fuels SOX, NOX, VOC, CO, PM and toxics emissions to insignificant levels, it’s difficult to understand why the EPA would allow biomass heat and power plants to be classified as ‘minor’, uncontrolled pollution sources.  Such a designation basically allows burning biomass and toxic waste materials that can contain large amounts of metals, polynuclear aromatics and other major toxins without any essential environmental controls.  Those who live in proximity or downwind of uncontrolled biomass combustion facilities can be put at very significant health risk.  Correcting this potentially very serious uncontrolled toxic emissions situation should be addressed by immediate facility’ shutdowns until proper analysis and MACT controls are installed to prevent significantly harming all local, at-risk exposed Residents.

Roger DePoy's picture
Roger DePoy on Apr 11, 2014 1:22 pm GMT

 Anytime I read an article favoring biomass over fossil fuels, I feel a twinge of regret that the author or intended audience doesn’t know any better.

 

Biomass has a fraction of the energy density that fossil fuels have, so to make up for it, one must burn enormous quantities of biomass to generate equivalent amounts of power. Additionally, biomass is predominately carbon-based, so there is no benefit to burning it. Factor in the energy used in recycling it, transporting it, etcetera, and it’s a very poor alternative.

Roger DePoy's picture
Roger DePoy on Apr 11, 2014 1:22 pm GMT

 Anytime I read an article favoring biomass over fossil fuels, I feel a twinge of regret that the author or intended audience doesn’t know any better.

 

Biomass has a fraction of the energy density that fossil fuels have, so to make up for it, one must burn enormous quantities of biomass to generate equivalent amounts of power. Additionally, biomass is predominately carbon-based, so there is no benefit to burning it. Factor in the energy used in recycling it, transporting it, etcetera, and it’s a very poor alternative.

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