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Column: Biomass energy is sustainable and needed

For the Valley News
Published: 11/13/2022 10:00:11 PM
Modified: 11/13/2022 10:00:13 PM

Andrew Friedland’s op-ed of Oct. 16 (“Wood-fired power won’t help”), recommends that we reduce our reliance on electricity generated by burning wood biomass. The situation is in fact nuanced and not as cut-and-dried as my Dartmouth colleague implies.

Consistent with the observations of Ben Steele in his Oct. 22 response to Andy’s op-ed, it is readily possible for electricity from a managed forest to be 100% carbon neutral. To achieve this requires that the net carbon dioxide taken up by the portion of the forest that is not harvested be equal to the carbon dioxide released by the portion of the forest that is harvested and used for electricity production. If desired, the proportion of unmanaged and managed forest can be adjusted so that carbon dioxide uptake by photosynthesis compensates for not only the carbon dioxide released at the generation site but also the supply chain emissions (e.g., from harvesting, transporting and chipping the biomass).

However, most forests in the U.S. are relatively young, and if left unharvested remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by photosynthesis than they return by decay. The controversy over wood-based electricity is understandable. Advocates point to potential for carbon-neutrality comparable to electricity generated from solar or wind, while critics contend that leaving the forest alone offers larger climate benefits than today’s wood-to-electricity facilities. They are both right.

Forests can be seen as a resource from which carbon-neutral energy can be sustainably produced and can also be seen as a resource that removes atmospheric carbon dioxide and thus partially compensates for emissions elsewhere in the economy. Fully acknowledging the importance of climate stabilization, it is relevant to consider additional factors when evaluating these “working forest” and “conserved forest” models. The collapse of the New England paper industry has disrupted the lives of generations of families and businesses large and small who have looked to the woods for their livelihoods. As well, providing a market for low-grade wood compensates for preferential removal of high-value species, improving both habitat diversity and economic value.

To get a perspective on these issues, I called the Society for Protection of New Hampshire Forests and spoke to Public Policy Director Matt Leahy. He explained that the SPNF conducts and informs forest management work aimed at multiple objectives, including enhancing wildlife habitat, plant biodiversity, recreation and working forests. “We have supported wood-to-energy projects and continue to do so,” he said. He pointed out that harvest of low-grade wood for biomass-to-energy facilities is generally done in conjunction and synergy with harvest or stand-improvement activities, which foster production of lumber for construction and furniture-making — activities which nobody is proposing we stop, and which lead to carbon storage. Hence without markets for low-grade wood, there will be less stand-improvement, and our forests will be less economically valuable and have less diverse habitat. Leahy observed that if New Hampshire forests were being over-harvested to their detriment, the Society for Protection of New Hampshire Forests would oppose this. However, this is not the case on the ground today.

Andy states in his op-ed that wood-fired electricity is not in the same category as wind, solar and hydro. Most experts would agree, but because of distinctive climate benefits of biomass energy rather than liabilities. The average of 85 scenarios leading to an increase of 1.5 degrees Centigrade (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) in global temperature recently compiled by the International Panel on Climate Change has more primary energy from biomass than wind and solar combined in 2050. This is because: 1) Carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere is widely thought to be required for climate stabilization; 2) Concentrating carbon dioxide from air is very costly, and indeed more expensive than carbon dioxide transport and storage; and 3) Converting biomass to electricity or fuels produces concentrated carbon dioxide as a byproduct. A majority of climate stabilization scenarios and the experts and organizations that produce them foresee carbon dioxide removal being necessary to stabilize climate and biomass energy playing an important and distinctive role.

My colleague Erin Mayfield, speaking of the influential Net Zero America project observes that “across many alternative pathways to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, biomass plays an integral role with utilization often rising to resource limits when we minimized cost.” The primary reason for this is that energy from biomass has potential to be carbon-negative whereas energy from most other renewable sources is at best carbon-neutral.

The wood-fired power plants in New England do not capture and store carbon dioxide emitted from smokestacks, primarily because policies that provide an economic reward for doing so are not in place. It is also the case that forests are not the only source of biomass that can be used for energy, and that there are forms of energy that can be produced from biomass other than electricity. We need to be thoughtful about how we manage forests and land, and we need to acknowledge the possibility and risks of mismanagement. However, dismissing energy from biomass is not consistent with the center of consensus among climate stabilization experts.

Lee Lynd lives in Meriden and is the Paul and Joan Queneau Distinguished Professor of Engineering at Dartmouth. He has been active for 40 years in activities related to sustainable energy production from biomass involving research, policy, and entrepreneurship.

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