Monday, September 21, 2009

Burning more wood is for cavemen

Here's a letter about biomass from Chris Matera, Forest Watch, which was published in The Brattleboro Reformer.

The glowing and superficial review of burning forests for energy (a.k.a., biomass energy) in the July 29 editorial by the Reformer and its flippant dismissal of western Massachusetts' concerns regarding this dirty power source does a serious disservice to its readers.

Not only has biomass burning been described with talking points straight from the biomass industry playbook, but the situation down here in western Massachusetts was so poorly described as to raise questions as to how much homework was done before dismissing very informed and concerned citizens as "NIMBY's."

Such a cheap shot mimics industry tactics meant to marginalize anyone disagreeing with the developers plans to cash in, and is a punt on finding the facts so it is disappointing to see the Reformer stoop to this level. The citizens working on this are volunteering their weekends, evenings and lunch hours to defend the New England environment, including Brattleboro, Vt., from increased pollution, CO2 emissions and deforestation.

Here are some facts which align with common sense beyond the slick marketing claims of the "biomess" industry.

* Contrary to industry claims, biomass energy does not reduce CO2 emissions, it increases them. Biomass energy produces 50 percent more CO2 per megawatt hour of energy than coal. That is not a typo, and is based on numbers from the developers own reports.

Since burning wood is so inefficient, burning living trees (locked up carbon), is actually worse than coal. Biomass burning releases about 3,300 pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour, while coal releases 2,100 pounds and gas about 1,400 pounds. Of course, industry waves a magic wand and says burning trees is carbon neutral because the trees grow back. That is nonsense. It takes a minute to burn a tree and at least 50 years to grow back (not to mention all the ecosystem impacts).That this myth has lived so long is a testament to the power of marketing, lobbying and a gullible (or worse) press.

Not only is burning trees worse than coal for CO2 emissions, but it produces more nitrous oxide, VOC's and particulates than coal, again by the proponents' own numbers.

Additionally, since when did burning trees become "green"? For all of my 44 years, we have learned that we need to plant trees for air and water quality, and recycle paper to save trees, and now all of a sudden let's pump massive "clean" energy public subsidies into burning forests for energy and let's call it "green".

This is truly Alice in Wonderland stuff. Fortunately, here in Massachusetts the Sierra Club has figured it out and calls biomass the "new coal".

While all biomass burning of green trees is a bad idea, the scale of the plants is important. The Middlebury College plant, for example, would burn about 21,000 tons of wood chips per year and this amount of wood could be provided by truly "waste" wood and is not such a big deal from a forest impact perspective, but the McNeil plant in Burlington, Vt., only runs part-time and burns about 250,000 tons of wood annually.

The owners admit that clearcuts up to 25 acres (25 football fields) occur to provide wood to fuel this plant. Additionally, McNeil has had lawsuits against it by neighbors for pollution and sometimes has substituted gas to lower emissions since it has regularly exceeded emissions allowances.

Now for perspective on what is happening in Massachusetts and is likely coming your way in Vermont. Massachusetts' current proposals are to build 190 megawatts of biomass energy that would require burning 2.5 million tons of wood each year. This is massive considering that the average total timber harvest in Massachusetts is about 500,000 tons. At this rate, all western and central Massachusetts forests could be logged in 16 years. If rare species habitat and state and privately protected areas are taken out, the entire area could be logged in nine years. (See

Public lands are target to provide 532,000 green tons of wood annually, a 1,082 percent increase over historical logging levels. Burning all this forest would only increase Massachusetts power generating capacity by just 1 percent, yet increase power plant CO2 emissions by 10 percent. Conservation measures, which cost one-third of what it costs to make new energy, could reduce our energy use by 30 percent. Just supplying the trees to these plants would require about 650 logging truck trips per day or 200,000 trips per year, at about 5 miles per gallon for trips up to 100 miles, mostly on narrow rural roads. For citations on all these matters, and photos of heavy clear cutting of Massachusetts forests, see

At this time of ecological and economic crisis, there can be no reasonable argument for forcing taxpayers to subsidize new polluting, CO2 emitting, forest devastating carbon based fuels for minimal amounts of power. These policies will worsen air pollution, increase greenhouse gas emissions, deplete forests and drain our public coffers, the exact opposite of what we need to be doing right now. Taxpayer subsidies and other incentives should be redirected toward truly green technologies to produce clean, non-carbon emitting energy, and local jobs.

Chris Matera is the founder of Massachusetts Forest Watch, a Northampton, Mass.-citizen watchdog group formed to defend Massachusetts state forests against commercial exploitation and to promote genuinely "green" energy solutions.

Photo from The Massachusetts Chainsaw Massacre: Savoy State Forest

No comments: