Biomass Energy: Dirty and Unsustainable

– by Ron Zeller, April 19, 2013

President Obama’s continuing “all-out, all-in, all-of-the-above” energy strategy still supports biomass energy development despite its increasingly obvious problems, numerous abandoned facilities, and public rejection. An asserted need to reduce America’s reliance on imported oil is frequently cited in arguments made for funding projects which are otherwise environmentally and economically dubious.

The US Department of Energy uses the term “renewable” when introducing visitors at its website to the topic of biomass energy. Perhaps it can be argued that biomass energy is renewable, but is it accurate to describe the repeated removal of biomass from agricultural or forested lands as sustainable? A quick review of some basics on the role of organic matter in soils belies the claim.

To support healthy plant life, soil must contain organic matter—plants don’t thrive on minerals and photosynthesis alone. As organic matter breaks down in soil, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur are released. Organic matter is the main source of energy (food) for microorganisms. A higher level of microbial activity at a plant’s root zone increases the rate of nutrient transfer to the plant. As the organic matter decreases in soil so does this biochemical activity. Without organic matter, soil biochemical activity would nearly stop.

In addition to being a storehouse of nutrients, decaying plant matter keeps soil loose, helping soil remain both porous and permeable as well as gaining better water-holding capacity. This is not only beneficial to plant growth but is essential for soil stability. Soil becomes more susceptible to erosion of all types as organic matter content is reduced.

The value of returning organic matter to the soil has been well-known to farmers since the earliest days of agriculture. Crop residues and animal waste are tilled back into the soil to promote fertility.

Denny Haldeman, steering committee member of the national Anti-Biomass Incineration Campaign, asserts that there is no documentation of the sustainability of repeated biomass removals on most soil types. Most documentation points to nutrient losses, soil depletion and decreased productivity in just one or two generations.

A cursory search of the Department of Energy website does not reveal that they have given the issue of soil fertility any consideration at all. However the biomass industry is supported by both Federal and State governments through five main advantages: tax credits, subsidies, research, Renewable Portfolio Standards, and preferential pricing afforded to technologies that are labeled “renewable” energy. Without government support, biomass power plants wouldn’t be viable outside of a very limited number of co-generation facilities operating within lumber mills. But under the Sisyphean imperative of “energy independence” and with generous access to public assistance, the extraction of biomass from our farmlands and public forests is set to have a big impact on land use (or abuse).

The creation of an artificial market for agricultural “wastes” harms entire local agricultural economies. In Minnesota, organic farmers are concerned that a proposed turkey waste incinerator will drive up the price of poultry manure by burning nearly half of the state’s supply. The establishment of biomass power generation will likely make it more difficult for family farms to compete with confined animal feeding operations and will contribute generally to the demise of traditional (sustainable) agricultural practices.

Similar economic damage will occur in the forest products industries. Dedicating acreage to servicing biomass wood burners denies its use for lumber or paper. Ultimately, the consumer will shoulder the loss in the form of higher prices for forest products.

As available sources of forest biomass near the new power plants diminish, clear-cutting and conversion of native forests into biomass plantations will occur, resulting in the destruction of wildlife habitat. Marginal lands which may not have been previously farmed will be targeted for planting energy crops. These lands frequently have steeper grades and erosion, sedimentation and flooding will be the inevitable result.

It gets worse.

Municipal solid waste as well as sewage sludge is mixed with the biomass and burned in locations where garbage incineration was traditionally disallowed due to concerns over public health. Dioxins and furans are emitted in copious quantity from these “green” energy plants. Waste incineration is already the largest source of dioxin, the most toxic chemical known.

Providing increased waste disposal capacity only adds to the waste problem because it reduces the costs associated with waste generation, making recycling that much more uneconomic. In terms of dangerous toxins, land-filling is preferable to incineration. The ash that is left after incineration will be used in fertilizers, introducing the dangerous residual heavy metals into the food supply.

In reality biomass fuel isn’t sustainable or clean.

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