Manomet: Biomass Isn't Green

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Thursday, June 17, 2010

A much-anticipated study of biomass by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences has found that burning wood to make electricity is potentially worse for the environment than burning coal.

The Manomet study, commissioned by the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs in November, 2009, delivered a severe blow to an industry that has long been touted by proponents as providing a "green" alternative to fossil fuels, with possible implications beyond Massachusetts. Ian Bowles, Massachusetts' secretary of energy and environmental affairs and a longtime proponent of biomass technology, said the state would "re-evaluate" financial incentives it currently provides to developers of biomass plants. Should Massachusetts remove biomass, specifically wood, from its list of renewable energy sources, the move could trigger a reconsideration of biomass nationally.

In a statement, Bowles summarized the study's central conclusions: "Electricity from biomass harvested from New England forests is not 'carbon neutral' in a time frame that makes sense given our legal mandate to cut greenhouse gas emissions...." In effect, the scientists working for Manomet found that the carbon released from burning wood, in combination with accelerated harvesting of wood to fuel the plants, resulted in a high net "carbon debt." In fact, the study concluded that biomass plants release more CO2 into the air for every kilowatt of energy produced than oil, coal, or natural gas.

The Manomet study reaffirmed a view offered by many biomass opponents, who had argued that treating wood as a renewable resource in the context of any effort to lower carbon emissions relied on a form of creative accounting. Because trees that die and decompose in the forest release CO2 as they rot, proponents of biomass reasoned that burning wood was "carbon neutral." But, the Manomet study says, harvesting trees, which remove carbon from the atmosphere as they grow, for biomass plants would result in an imbalance—more carbon going into the air with fewer trees in the forest to absorb greenhouse gases—that would take several decades to overcome.

When the state ordered the study last fall, it suspended its consideration of a number of proposed biomass plants in Western Mass. that, until late last year, appeared to be on a fast track, enjoying political and financial support from the Patrick administration. Reaction to the Manomet study by proponents of biomass has largely focused on what Matt Wolfe of Madera Energy, Inc., a company proposing to build a biomass plant in Greenfield, terms an "incorrect" assumption: most of the wood the Greenfield plant plans to burn, Wolfe said in published reports, would not be specifically harvested for use in a biomass plant, but would comprise the byproduct of logging operations, debris from storms and trees taken from land being cleared for development.

David P. Tenny, president and CEO of the National Alliance of Forest Owners, said in a written statement that "the conclusions drawn from this study by Massachusetts confuse rather than inform public policy by suggesting that fossil fuel energy that increases atmospheric carbon over the long term is preferable to renewable forest biomass energy that recycles and reduces atmospheric carbon... Massachusetts' determination that fossil fuels are preferable over renewable biomass for energy is a policy decision unique to the state, not a broad scientific conclusion. The prevailing science is clear on the carbon benefits of producing energy from sustainable forest biomass as compared to fossil fuels."

The operative word for Manomet, however, was "sustainable." The study concluded that there is not a significant enough supply of "wastewood" to provide large-scale plants with a sustainable source of fuel. To provide enough wood to significantly offset electricity generated from coal, oil or natural gas, the study found, there would have to be a significant increase in the number of trees being harvested from forests in New England.

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The Manomet study is useful to commonwealth citizens in that it provides publicity to the issue of state-sponsored biomass pollution.

Payed for and, at least in part, written by, people with a large financial stake in seeing biomass burn in Massachusetts, it will ultimately be used to justify incineration in some politically and financially weak community.

The developers of the construction and demolition debris burner planned for Springfield (one of whom, Mr. Victor Gatto, is, like Secretary Bowles, an alumni of the Ze-gen Coporation, a Massachusetts "waste-to-energy" company) say they don't need renewable energy credits because people will pay them to burn debris on Page Boulevard.

In fact, Secretary Bowles was quoted in Springfield Republican as saying that the Manomet study "does not have any implication for construction and demolition wastes."

That Manomet dared to speak some of the scientific truth regarding carbon & biomass burning is entirely due to political pressure from the Massachusetts citizens who brought pressure to bear on this issue. It's great to see it in print, but it's primarily a comment about the persistance and strength of the previous denial.

To keep the spotlight on the need for a responsible energy policy Valley residents are invited to look into both the Stop Spewing Carbon ballot initiative and the efforts by Springfield citizens to stop the Palmer Renewable Energy LLC construction and demolition debris incinerator planned for Page Boulevard .

Posted by Geoff B. on 6.15.10 at 14:56

The Manomet study was done only because intense political pressure was put on the biomass industry, including by the opponents of the plants proposed for Russell, Springfield and Greenfield. This study focused on forestry issues, so the issue of construction and demolition debris burning was not in its perview. It's the pressure from citizens that will stop polluters from siting their projects in their communites, not the wisdom and benevolence of our state agencies. Greenfield voted last week with an unlikely 35% turnout and a whopping 85% voting against biomass in Greenfield. That's the stuff that makes the regulators do their studies and review their policies. Congratulations to Greenfeild. I hope this story of ties landslide victory on the part of biomass opponents does not get lost due the timing of the release of the Manomet study.

Posted by valleygirl2 on 6.17.10 at 18:07

Coal initially releases CO2 when burned, but that is eventually taken up by forests and it also dissolves in the ocean. See the same statement that is being made about burning trees is true no matter what you burn. But, is CO2 from burning trees actually worse? Well it requires that you first cut down the trees that were sequestering the CO2, so that makes it much worse. And due to its low energy density, biomass releases 50% more CO2 than burning coal. I am not saying that we do not need to drastically reduce our consumption of carbon, but I am saying that chopping down healthy forests to burn in smokestacks is complete insanity.

The biomass that will be removed during loggin, so-called residues for instance, are being collected because they contain stored energy from photosynthesis. When they are burned, rapidly oxidized, they release that energy as heat and form CO2. When these same materials stay in the forest, they do not produce CO2 directly, as is being implied by the popular literature. This is completely wrong. The energy in the biomass is transformed through microbial metabolism into cell mass. This energy forms the basis for the food web in the forest. This energy source is what drives all of the life in the forest ecosystem, aside from the photosynthetic plants and lichens. All the energy in the system is dependent on the cycling of carbon and other nutrients through metabolic processes. The CO2 is respired as part of life, in an intact forest, one that is accumulating carbon, is minor compared to the uptake, especially during the growing season. When the forest is disturbed, the process is reversed and the stored CO2 is released by increased decomposition via respiration.

Whenever materials are removed from the forest system, especially in large quantities, this robs the forest of energy that is critical to healthy functioning. The easiest analogy would be if you were to give blood and they only wanted to take 65% of your blood at a time. How would your energy levels be after that? Would you even survive? Logging that removes such large amounts of energy from the system cause a huge depression in the overall energy cycles of the forest, leading to loss of vitality. Or how would you function if your calories were abruptly restricted to 35% of what you need to survive? Or if a room full of people were given 35% of the food that they need as a group to survive. It would be like a concentration camp. The strongest might survive by getting more food or by eating each other, but it would be a highly competitive and unfavorable condition.

Manomet should be reviewed in light of this ecosystem approach. Any carbon removed has an impact. What levels of impact can be considered sustainable? What are the forest health impacts from concentration camp conditions? How do the mycorhizal fungi and all the other complex symbiotic relationship function without the removed energy? Why are the forests in general decline, with whole species dying out? We are losing dominant tree species, associated plant species, insect communities, fungal communities, nutrient cyclers, and other essential components of the systems. How can the forest be managed to promote these critical systems and association?

Recently the voters of Greenfield unambiguously answered a simple question- "Who wants their kids to inhale contaminated sewage water?" 85% voted to protect public health. Even more importantly, the voters saw this vote as a referendum on the biomass question, not just sewage water use. All 3 biomass questions failed by huge margins. Biomass Is Dead In Greenfield. Game Over.

The people of Greenfield are telling Matt Wolfe to get lost. He lied about using contaminated sewage effluent by saying that "only 100% pure water vapor" would be discharged from the cooling towers. He lied about biomass being carbon neutral, green energy. He is still lying on his web site by claiming that he is building a "combined heat and power (CHP) plant" that will produce "carbon-neutral electricity, steam, and hot water". He is in fact proposing to build an old-fashioned, electricity-generating only, dirty biomass incinerator with the ability to burn a ton a minute of anything (like trash, plastic, lead-painted wood, asphalt shingles, pressure-treated wood, etc.). It will be approximately 23% efficient, and probably less, since he now wants to cool the incinerator with air-conditioning. Imagine, using enough electricity and freon to cool down the heat from burning 3/4 of a ton of wood per minute. How insane is that? But he tells the newspapers that he's switching to dry cooling using "large fans". Maybe he means the 43 fans he has on his Facebook page? Meanwhile, over 3300 people have told him loud and clear, it will not be happening in Greenfield.

The message to Matt Wolfe is -Get Out Of Town! You have been shown the door. Now don't get your tail stuck on your way back to the rock you slithered out from under. Greenfield won't buy your Green-washing. You tried to con us Mr. Wolfe. You failed. Now, Get Lost!

Try selling your snake oil to Northampton, Mr. Wolfe. When they close their regional landfill they will be looking for an new way to get rid of all that trash and make some easy money. How about a "biomass" incinerator for Noho? Or was that really what you had in mind for Greenfield right from the start? A regional trash incinerator? The timing seems very suspicious.

The people of Western Mass do support real Green Energy alternatives. But we don't support dirty biomass incinerators that will pollute our air, destroy our forests, and release 50% more carbon dioxide than a coal-fired power plant producing the same amount of energy.

Forest incineration is ecologically wrong, it is morally wrong, and it is economically only possible with huge subsidies. Wasting limited financial resources on burning forests for energy takes importants subsidies away from zero-carbon alternatives like solar, geothermal, wind, and small-scale hydro. And especially, the least expensive alternative, conservation and improved efficiency.

Posted by Glen Ayers on 6.17.10 at 22:29

The biggest biomass story in the Valley happened in Greenfield and I can't believe you didn't cover it. An astounding 35% of the voters came out to vote against biomass in an off year election that offered 2 contested races, a School Committee seat and a Town Council seat. Elderly people were pushed in their wheelchairs and young families came out to vote because their children have asthma. The drawing card was 3 questions about wastewater to be used for the incinerator. An intense effort by a grassroots organization was responsible for the turnout despite the failed strategy of Matt Wolfe, who chose to announce that he would be changing to "dry cooling" 2 weeks before the vote. This was not only a vote about the wastewater, it was a vote about biomass in general. This was the only opportunity for the people to have say in the matter after being ignored by the ZBA and Town Council. The Manomet Study confirmed what we have been saying all along! The people have spoken and the answer is NO, NO. NO. POWER TO THE PEOPLE.

Posted by Devo on 6.17.10 at 22:42

I hope that Boston and Washington are hearing this: the Manomet Study and the Greenfield vote are speaking loud and clear! The citizens of Massachusetts do not want biomass in their state. It doesn't make sense and it is a pathetic waste of taxpayer dollars. The town of Greenfield spoke for all of Franklin County and the state when an overwhelming majority voted NO on the biomass issue.

Posted by Linda on 6.18.10 at 10:53

The people of Greenfield, MA have spoken regarding biomass on June 8, and your newspaper missed the boat! This is the first time ever that the people have been able to vote on whether or not they want a biomass plant in their town. The vote was about using the wastewater to cool the plant, but the people in Greenfield have said whether the plant uses wastewater or dry cooling, they don't want the plant. The voters have said that it's not worth it to jeapordize our health and environment for a biomass plant that is so inefficient. (23% efficient using wastewater; 17% using dry cooling and much less than that on hot summer days!) This plant will put .3% of the energy on the grid, and ship it somewhere else, as we don't need it here. Using our tax dollars and money from our electric rates to subsidize biomass plants that will make us sick, DOES NOT MAKE SENSE. Subsidies should be used for solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, and tidal-- the truly green energies! People outside of Greenfield have said they wished that they could vote on this issue, but could not. Greenfield voters have spoken for all people in the valley. This is an important issue that affects all of us, and this vote should have been covered by the Valley Advocate!

Posted by sandy on 6.18.10 at 22:33

The biomass hawkers are now saying "we dont burn whole trees so that isnt valid". fact is, they DO, look at Vermont etc. During the "forest vision", the drafts had a prohibition against whole tree harvesting for biomass on public lands, and the timber people hooted loudly. It disappeared from the final version mysteriously. They asy "those arent whole trees, they are whole logs" !! Well now, I guess you can take the logs down without cutting the whole tree?

The lies and shell games still continue, but the VOTERS up in Greenfield spoke and spoke loudly. They arent buying the snake oil.

Posted by weather01089 on 6.21.10 at 12:02

Thank you Greenfield voters for getting out and voicing your opposition to biomass. As one who lives in Turners Falls, less than a mile away from the proposed biomass plant site, I was angry that your ZBA permitted this fiasco without even a thought for those of us who live directly downwind from the emission stack. Despite the fact that they received letters from the Boards of Health of many neighboring towns, they still allowed this fiasco to move forward. Just goes to show once again that we can't trust our public officials to think about anything other than money.

As for the Manomet report, any idiot who burns wood knows that you burn it far faster than it grows. Governor Patrick should have known this without spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to state the obvious - but hey, maybe he was brought up in the city without a woodstove. The biomass technology has no place in the renewable energy portfolios that are financed by our tax dollars. Biomass Incineration is OLD TECHNOLOGY at its worst.

Burning scrap wood to heat your home in the winter is one thing. Burning and clearcutting forests to make a fast buck financed by tax dollar investment funding and tax credits is quite another matter. This is not about money, it's about the health of our citizens and the health of our forest ecosystems. We can no longer rely on corrupt politicians to look out for either for us.

Posted by Rachel J Roy on 6.24.10 at 21:37



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