[OPINION] Renewability: Biomass Energy Not Renewable

[Read the opposing view to this opinion piece, “Renewability: Congress Confirms Biomass Energy is Renewable,” by Roger Sedjo and Stephen Shaler.]

– by Christopher D. Ahlers, Adjunct Professor, Vermont Law School

There has been increased public attention to the use of biomass as a means to address climate change. Recently, the Senate approved the Energy Policy Modernization Act, which would require the federal government to consider certain biomass projects as “carbon-neutral.” The bill attempts to circumvent the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency, which has been working on a policy relating to biogenic carbon dioxide emissions for over five years (biogenic emissions are those generated from the combustion of biomass, or biological materials such as plants and trees).

But the prevailing debate ignores the real problem of biomass. It overlooks the harm to public health.

Smoke is harmful to human beings. It makes them cough and wretch. It exacerbates respiratory problems, including asthma. It causes premature mortality. The World Health Organization estimates that air pollution causes the deaths of seven million people every year. Several million of those deaths are attributable to the burning of biomass. This is particularly a problem in underdeveloped countries, where women and children suffer disproportionately from the burning of solid fuel in rudimentary cookstoves. Indeed, there is an environmental justice component to this problem.

The problem of air pollution is simple. It is all about combustion. In addition to carbon dioxide, fine particulates are also the product of combustion. For over twenty years, there has been an increasingly large volume of evidence demonstrating that fine particulates cause premature mortality in human beings. They are worse than coarse particulates, because they burrow deeper into the lungs, causing respiratory blockages and cardiovascular problems, and ultimately death. The debate over the alleged “carbon-neutrality” of biomass ignores these harms.

Unfortunately, the prevailing debate assumes that biomass is a desirable component of federal energy policy, because it is allegedly “carbon neutral.” The argument runs as follows: A tree that is burned for energy would have died, decomposed, and released carbon dioxide anyway, over the course of time. Therefore, the burning of the tree for energy does not release any more carbon dioxide than would have occurred naturally. The obvious flaw is that the tree would have decomposed over a number of years, and not immediately through combustion.

But there are other significant flaws. Absent a combustion event such as a forest fire, the regular decomposition of the tree would not have released fine particulates, primarily responsible for worldwide deaths from air pollution. As a combustion technology, biomass is like coal, oil, and gas, and unlike solar and wind power.

Moreover, the prevailing debate calls into question the very accounting assumptions on which the claim of “carbon-neutrality” is based. EPA assumes that in the long term, all carbon dioxide inhaled from the atmosphere by all living things equals carbon dioxide exhaled into the atmosphere. Some environmental organizations and the Environmental Protection Agency apparently take the position that some biomass projects could be “carbon-neutral,” but this would depend on a very close economic and engineering analysis of what would have happened to the tree anyway (still, this does not justify a blanket legislative determination of “carbon-neutrality”).

But if the combustion of biomass is sometimes “carbon neutral” and sometimes not, then the same must be said about metabolic emissions, or those emissions of carbon dioxide from the breathing of human and animal life. The agency’s tautology does not take into account short-term fluctuations in carbon dioxide. If the agency intends to continue the debate over biomass as presently framed, it will have to update its accounting assumptions.

Much easier it is to simply deny biomass the honorable status of being a “renewable energy.” We deny this status to other forms of energy, where there are adverse impacts on the environment. Coal, oil, and gas are not forms of renewable energy because they generate harmful impacts on the environment, notably from mining operations. The same can be said about nuclear power, whose fuel is obtained from the mining of uranium.

But human beings are also a part of the environment. In addition to shaping the environment, they are shaped by the environment. If we deny the status of “renewable energy” to fossil fuels and nuclear power on the basis of harmful impacts on the environment, we should do the same for biomass. There is nothing “renewable” about a form of energy that causes the premature death of millions of human beings every year.

Christopher D. Ahlers is a Staff Attorney with the Clean Air Council, a nonprofit organization with headquarters in Philadelphia. He is an Adjunct Professor at Vermont Law School, where he has taught courses in Air Pollution Law & Policy. He has recently published a law review article, Wood Burning, Biomass, Air Pollution, and Climate Change.

3 comments

  • The question “Is this form of energy harmful to public health?” is a brilliant way to decide the best source of energy.

    I plan to use this question to stop an 18,000-acre USFS project in the Missouri Mark Twain National Forest; Phase One is 3,600-acres on two burn units. Not making this up, USFS describes the location of the project as “burn units” where they will have “prescribed fires” every 3 years for decades. USFS wants to pretend wood smoke along with particular matter will go up straight into space. The USFS video on Prescribed Fires at MTNF shows crews of people without face masks, respirators, or even a bandana, using torches to burn the forest “fuel”

    Great conference call today, thank you so much. I will post in a few weeks the status of the project.

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  • Mr. Ahlers said, “Smoke is harmful to human beings. It makes them cough and wretch.” So, I hope he doesn’t drive a car or truck because THAT smoke is even more harmful to human beings and it certainly makes me cough and wretch.

    He also says, “Several million of those deaths are attributable to the burning of biomass.” Maybe so, can you document that?

    He also says, “This is particularly a problem in underdeveloped countries, where women and children suffer disproportionately from the burning of solid fuel in rudimentary cookstoves.” Are modern biomass facilities as polluting as those “rudimentary cookstoves?

    Then he says, “The obvious flaw is that the tree would have decomposed over a number of years, and not immediately through combustion.” Sure, but… meanwhile, for every tree burned, many are not- and they are sequestering carbon. Is this totally irrelevant?

    When your car emits carbon, do other cars sequester it? When a cow emits carbon, do other cows sequester it? Although every carbon molecule is the same, forests are different from other forms of carbon “pollution”.

    Then he says, “But there are other significant flaws. Absent a combustion event such as a forest fire, the regular decomposition of the tree would not have released fine particulates, primarily responsible for worldwide deaths from air pollution.”

    But, biomass plants don’t emit the particulate matter of those “rudimentary cookstoves”. C’est nes pas?

    Then he says, “EPA assumes that in the long term, all carbon dioxide inhaled from the atmosphere by all living things equals carbon dioxide exhaled into the atmosphere. ” No it doesn’t and nobody believes that. But, in some regions— the total amount of carbon in the forests is growing because growth is faster than harvest. But all the carbon emitted by transportation, homes, electric power and farting cows can’t be sequestered by forests. No pro forestry people think forests can solve the GW problem by itself. What would help a lot would be if people who don’t like biomass energy and/or hate all forestry would only get around on horses, don’t heat your houses, don’t fly in jets, never eat meat. That would help a lot.

    Then, “….this does not justify a blanket legislative determination of “carbon-neutrality””. Not many people say that anymore. What they do say is with very nicely done forestry and with well engineered biomass facilities- and if the regional forests as a whole, are not losing carbon, then it comes close to being carbon neutral. By the way, what is carbon neutral? Driving cars/trucks/, heating your house, watching TV, eating meat? Is the measure of correctness that something must be absolutely carbon neutral? Solar farms pave over landscapes- reducing their functioning as ecosystems, so they can no longer sequester carbon and produce oxygen as forests can. Wind farms pave over mountain tops causing immense ecological and aesthetic damage.

    Then, “Much easier it is to simply deny biomass the honorable status of being a “renewable energy.”” False. It is renewable- which in itself says nothing about whether or not its carbon neutral. Forests can be managed- get cut periodically and they regrow. So, they are renewable.

    If we’re going to have no carbon emissions and no damage to the environment- we’d better prepare to go back to the stone age. I think I’d love that and I’m willing to do so? Anybody else? But just don’t fool yourself into thinking solar and wind are perfect. They are not. if you think they are- you aren’t being honest about this and not looking at the negatives associated with them.
    Joe

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    • Joe,

      I was on the conference call, one of the best. The information presented was clear and compelling. Christopher D. Ahlers J.D. is an Adjunct Professor, Vermont Law School. His credentials are impeccable, and his expertise in public health and law are unique.

      Most people think wood smoke is safe. Ahlers said incomplete wood combustion generates highly toxic PM-2.5. Humans have no tolerance to PM; children, the elderly or anyone with a compromised immune system is at great risk. The threat is worse; trees in the forest and air have other chemicals like mercury from coal-fired power plants making wood smoke deadly.

      Your last comments are highly critical and unrelated. “If we’re going to have no carbon emissions and no damage to the environment – we’d better prepare to go back to the stone age. I think I’d love that and I’m willing to do so? Anybody else? But just don’t fool yourself into thinking solar and wind are perfect. They are not. if you think they are- you aren’t being honest about this and not looking at the negatives associated with them.”

      Going back to the Stone Age is a false option. We are much closer to extinction than you realize. It is not only the runaway climate change due to carbon dioxide over 400 ppm, but the arctic ice melting, sea level rise, loss of land ice, and global temperature rise. The feedbacks in the climate system create a vicious cycle, a death spiral.

      Stone Age people had a temperate climate and few worries. The good times are gone. Our current reality with extreme flooding, droughts, and heat waves, along with the lack of clean water and air are the result of human greed and abuse of the natural world.

      Peace.

      Like

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