2010 Feb. 24: Forest Biomass Energy: Just Another Excuse to Log?

2010 Feb. 24: Forest Biomass Energy: Just Another Excuse to Log?

February 24th, 2010 at 13:24

The good news is that coal-fired power plants might be on the way out, but there are some really stupid ideas being pursued in the mad rush to find a substitute.  It is like an old cartoon with a bunch of clowns running around and bumping into each other, with little progress in any direction that makes sense.  The tax incentives and mandates for renewable energy are spurring them onward, but since money is the main motive, the best solutions for the environment and human health are bypassed in favor of more dirty energy options like burning forest biomass.
I already ranted about the evils of nuclear energy, but the push for forest biomass energy sounds even worse.  It is cheap to produce, technologically simple and has been put forth with a (false) myth of carbon neutrality and renewability so might sound like a good idea on first glance.  Timber companies love the idea since they can make money from otherwise ‘wasted’ material such as tops and branches of trees left after timber harvests and poor quality trees in managed forests.  Some of the nation’s largest electric utilities are proposing building large wood-fired electric generators or converting coal-firing generators.  Serious projects are being considered in places like Oregon, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Montana, Michigan, and even in the UK
Wood is not ideal for fuel though; it takes huge volumes of material to be transported (which uses fuel) and burned to get enough energy. This could be worse for the forest than typical timber harvest.  Since all the biomass found in the forest is potential fuel, the forest would be stripped and healthy forests need decomposition of branches, bark, needles and other natural debris. There will be a huge increased demand for material, and once all the small stuff is gone they will inevitably turn to whole trees and then larger trees.  In some places they are already using whole trees.
Biomass plants also produce pollution, and it can be comparable to a coal-fired power plant.  They emit toxic chemicals such as dioxin, carbon monoxide particulates, and ozone forming chemicals that cause asthma, heart disease and cancer.  Communities are starting to protest plans for biomass plants in Florida and elsewhere due to health concerns.
There is no question about the need to end our dependence on fossil fuels, but we are barking up the wrong tree (again).  We should be focusing on energy conservation, and looking at better options like solar, wind, geothermal and even tidal energy. A progressive idea was put forth by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont who introduced legislation that would greatly aid in the expansion of rooftop solar-energy production in the United States. There is sufficient roof space in the United States to meet 20 percent of our electricity needs simply by installing solar panels and solar water heaters.  By putting these on 10 million roofs, 30,000 megawatts of energy could be produced which is the equivalent of 30 nuclear power plants without toxic waste or long distance transmission lines.  We can meet our energy needs without endangering wild places, stripping our forests or poisoning our air.
For more information, see Burning Forest Biomass a False Fix or The Burning Issues with Biomass.
Posted by Mycena, in Environmental Issues
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