The Stampede of Western Governments into a BioMESS

by Larry Edwards

November 7, 2011

Fueling a BioMess is a new Greenpeace report that exposes the myopic stampede of western governments into fueling electric power plants and heat plants with forest biomass, as a way to help save the climate.

The climate as well as forests suffer for this mistaken approach. The biomass boom is a classic case of national governments following a path that, years ago, they should have realized is too good to be true.

Favoritism for biomass hinges on its supposed carbon neutrality as a substitute for coal, oil or gas in producing power or heat, and on the fact that it is “renewable.” Under the cover of those convenient catch-phrases, governments and industry are squandering the dollars, Euros and precious time that are needed to deploy truly effective measures for combating climate change.
In shifting to biomass, the business of making energy conveniently continues pretty much as usual, but with little or no improvement to the climate, or a worsening of it.
These squanderings of time and funds need to be diverted to non-combustion renewable energy and effective energy conservation measures a path that also creates jobs.  Sadly, taking the path of biomass energy was avoidable. Science from two decades ago to the present shows that carbon dioxide emissions from burning forest biomass for energy generally take so long to be neutralized by tree regrowth several decades to over a century that the climate is harmed, not helped. This decade is the timeframe that matters for getting a grip on the atmospheric CO2 concentration, and the next few decades are also quite important.

The biomass boom is a setback, not a help, during this one last window for action.
Last month the European Energy Agency’s Scientific Committee produced a report outing this problem to EU policy makers; outcome as yet unknown. In the U.S. the EPA made a start on this, but under political pressure is dithering, delaying action for three years.
Driven by government policies and subsidies, biomass combustion for power and heat is  widespread across Europe and growing fast, and is catching hold quickly in Canada and the United States.
In fact, of concern in the U.S. and Canada is not only the North American boom in constructing new biomass power plants and moves to co-fire coal power plants with biomass. It also includes rapidly escalating biomass exports to Europe commonly as wood pellets.
One problem with biomass energy is that it takes a huge land area of forest or crops to make just a small amount of energy.

An example in Fueling a BioMess is that for Canada to produce just 15% of its 2020 electricity needs with biomass requires the amount of wood that came from all the logging done throughout Canada in 2008. A here-and-now example is that Europe is unable to supply its biomass energy programs from within its own land area, and is resorting to imports, primarily from the U.S. and Canada, and as far away as Australia. This is a policy-driven, destructive vacuum cleaner. North American policies are no better.
Another problem is the amount of energy expended much of it from fossil fuels and the CO2 emitted in producing a wood pellet and shipping it from here to Europe. Even before the pellet is lit-off, this cuts the net energy to be gained from burning it by 40%. Wasteful, and the wasted emissions must be taken into account!
It is sad to think of the natural resources, public funds and years of effort that have been wasted on the wrong turn down the path to big-time biomass, beyond the traditional use of wood wastes from mills and manufacturing. Demand for that now far exceeds the supply.
It is long past time to jump to the right path for meeting energy needs and aiding the climate.
The Greenpeace report and its thorough reference list are a good place to explore why this is so. Once informed, you can help avoid much forest and climate destruction by speaking up.

Download Fueling a BioMess here.

Larry Edwards

By Larry Edwards

Larry is a former forest campaigner based in Greenpeace's Alaska field office in Sitka. He has been featured in Alaska Public Radio, The Examiner, AP, and Sit News.

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