Through the Looking Glass- At Biomass

with apologies to Lewis Carroll

The time has come, the Blogger said
To talk of many things:
Of carbon and of issues
That biomass use brings
And whether fossil fuels are best—
Giv’n all considerings

I was hoping to have time to approach this topic in an organized way, but that will not happen in the foreseeable future. It’s probably time to plunge in, starting with thinking about the carbon neutral concept. Matthew Koehler had some relevant papers in his posts #1 and #2 here which we can go back to when we talk about this.

We also had a previous post here on the Manomet study.

To me, though, the starting point has got to be understanding the different approaches to carbon accounting and why they are different.

here is a a fairly straightforward approach by Steve Wilent in the Forestry Source. What do you think?

f you think “sustainable,” current king of buzzwords surrounding forestry, is over-used and difficult to define, its successor is even more problematic: “carbon neutral.” Energy produced from forest biomass is said to be carbon neutral, because any carbon dioxide released is later sequestered as new biomass grows. This is true. You might also argue that the combustion of woody biomass releases carbon that the trees already had sequestered, thus paying off any CO2 debt by withdrawing on a CO2 deposit account.

Some states, environmental groups, and, in a recent ruling, the US Environmental Protection Agency, assume that all carbon dioxide is equal, that CO2 from the combustion of forest biomass is the same as CO2 from the combustion of fossil fuels. That’s true, too. CO2, regardless of its heritage, affects the earth’s climate in the same way. So, there are valid arguments on both side of the carbon-neutral issue.

However, the argument is, for the time being, irrelevant. Although the ultimate goal is to reduce the amount of CO2 in the biosphere, there is little chance of a meaningful reduction in the short term. There are as yet no non-carbon-emitting alternatives to fossil fuels that are both less expensive and as widely available. Until the development of such alternatives—solar power being the ideal, since an unlimited supply is available—it is better to use non-fossil fuels such as biomass.

Look at it this way: CO2 exists both in the biosphere (air, water, soil, plants, animals, and so on) and below the biosphere (fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas). The concentration of CO2 in the biosphere—in particular, in the atmosphere and oceans—has increased because we humans have transferred large amounts of fossil carbon to the biosphere, largely through the combustion of fossil fuels.

As we work toward greater energy efficiency and develop new carbon capture and storage technologies, one of our primary goals ought to be to slow that transfer of CO2.

The Forestry Source- Anyone wishing to subscribe can go to this page: and click on Subscribe. Costs $42 for individuals, $79 for institutions.

30 thoughts on “Through the Looking Glass- At Biomass”

  1. Carbon neutral, and carbon sequestering are definitely up and coming buzz words. So I’m wondering if there has been any studies of the effects of fuel treatments, controlled burns, let it burn, and wildfires in the whole carbon / CO2 strategies that are being theorized. The first thing they always seem to key in on is the timber harvest. If EPA treats all CO2 emissions the same and they intend to regulate those emissions, then what does that do to our fire and fuels policies? I would guess it would at least add another layer of bureaucracy.

  2. Imagine making all those things now made with plastic out of wood. Wouldn’t that help with our trade deficit, our carbon deficit and our forest stewardship deficit, as well. Not to mention our jobs deficit. With around a half a billion dead trees, we have no shortage of raw materials, until it goes up in smoke.

    I keep saying that we need to do indepth studies on the likely outcomes of the “No Action” alternatives under NEPA. That could help the grossly misinformed public learn more about the “bigger picture”. Forests do not need to be sacrificed for political gain. Alas, that has already happened. Blaming dead forests solely on “global warming” is purely political rhetoric.

    As Mike says, studies need to be done and models developed for essential NEPA work needed for future “wildfire management”. It is clear that the fire folks fear the NEPA process, without an adequate scientific foundation to stand on.

    The kneejerk response against all biomass harvesting is coming from the Gaia-ists. They fear the light of site-specific sound science.

  3. Capital and time spent on biomass infrastructure and production is capital and time wasted. We have none of either to spare in mitigating climate change. We need to spend both on technology that is essentially (i.e. at least once constructed) carbon free. Every step with our capital and time needs to be a step ahead, not a step backwards or to the side.

    “Investing” in biomass infrastructure only creates dependencies (not unlike our dependency on fossil fuels) that must be undone later. There is no there there.

    • Larry- so you are thinking that we should simply wait until solar and wind (and nuclear) are up to provide 100% of energy and heat- and switch then? Seems like from what I have read that that could be awhile.

      Also I don’t agree that biomass infrastructure necessarily creates dependencies. We have the power to design portable units (and they exist) which could flock like crows to a carcass when a mass of dead trees such as mountain pine beetle outbreaks, present themselves and need to be removed to reduce hazard for falling trees or for fuels reduction. There is a mass of technological, economic, social and political choices to be made that guide the development of appropriate technologies; and they do not all lead to the path of dependencies.

      • 1. Seems like from what I’ve heard, solar-thermal, solar-pv and wind are available technologies, as are heat pumps. Inter-seasonal thermal energyh storage can be done with “underground thermal energy storage” (UTES), is also a proven (though little-known) technology and one or another of its forms is applicatble just about anywhere, at high efficiency. Capital is best spent on the above.

        2. Take the scare dollars that are available to upgrade the heating system in a school (an all-to-common ploy now), and use that to install a biomass system, and you have created a carbon-reliant dependency. There won’t be the dollars to change that, at least for a long time, therefore literal dependence is created.

      • Larry- here is a study looking at what it would take for 20% wind by 2024.

        Seems to me that that leaves plenty of time to develop wood as a potential short to intermediate/backup heat strategy.

  4. I think the issue is “climate nuetral”. If biomass burning can show that it help the forest sequester more carbon, or it can show that it releases less co2 unit of energy, then there would be an improvemetn. But in fact harvesting biomass reduces co2 sequestration in the short and long run (hard to uptake as much carbon with depleted soil), and puts out more co2 than burning coal. If we are going to keep burning, we should burn the most efficnet fuel-natrual gas, right?? And then cut our consumpution by half (pretty easy to do if we felt like it) and then look at the non burnables. Change our lifestyles in developed countries (we will be foeced into ti anyhow-may as well be proactive). I can’t figure out why so many regulators don’t understand the immediate positive benefit of the 50% reduction. Jobs, long term payback climate wise and money wise. I guess there are no big machines involved…

  5. How is the CO2 emitted by burning waste wood, whole trees, slash, etc. any different than any other CO2 emitted. Wood, like coal which was once wood, has sequestered carbon. If you timber a forest and make furniture, pallets, houses, etc. out of it, the carbon is still sequestered in the wood. Burning wood releases the carbon immediately.

    Good studies show that 50% of carbon emitted is recaptured in 20 years by forests, 30% more in 200 years and the last 20% will be around for 500 to 1000 years in the atmosphere. Never mind that there are hardly any guarantees that forests (to take up the CO2 as companies claim) will be replanted when they are cut. Humans don’t have that kind of time to reduce greenhouse gasses.

    Germany, under Hermann Scheer until his recent untimely death, vastly increased German jobs and electricity created by solar energy in the last decade.

    Switching to burning wood for electricity and heat seems weird since the ocean’s ability to sequester carbon is nearly maxed out and the forests are our major way to sequester carbon. None of the man-made sequestering schemes seem to work safely or effectively on any significant scale.

    Timbered land holds less water and recent studies show that there is less rainfall downwind of the timbered land. Timbering leads to excess loss of topsoil, loss of duff, loss of nutrients and rains wash into rivers more easily causing floods.

    Once wood burning plants are established their companies will create a whole new lobby group to keep them operating for the 25 year life time of these plants. In 10 years we could be well on our way to clean energy sources and what will we do with these polluting plants that are continuing to gobble forest?

    Recently the State of Ohio approved over 2,000 mw of wood burning plants. It has been estimated that those incinerators alone will need seven times the total annual current forest harvest of the State of Ohio. The rationale is that they will haul in wood from other states. Oh? Other states are saying the same thing as well as the EU. Where is the wood going to come from to feed these plants that are getting huge subsidies and immediate tax breaks to just build the plant. None of the money that I can see is conditional on the plants operating for a long time. The venture capitalists get the money quickly and where is that money coming from . . . taxes.

    These incinerators create huge demands for cutting, harvesting, hauling, etc. in terms of diesel fuel creating even more CO2, soot, and other toxins emitted when diesel fuel is burned. Aren’t we trying to reduce pollution?

    My major concern is that burning biomass like forests and poultry creates huge amounts of air pollution in the form of nanoparticles, fine, small and large particulate matter, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxides, volatile organic compounds, dioxins, hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, arsenic, etc. These toxins lead to smog, ozone and acid rain. These toxins increase the risk of heart disease, asthma, chronic bronchitis, poly cystic ovary disease, endometriosis, diabetes, hypo and hyperthyroidism, immune deficiency in children, developmental delays in children, premature birth, cancer and the list goes on and on of proven health risks.

    The biomass burning officials I have questioned deny any risks at all. They deny that millions of pounds of toxins emitted from a single plant are risky. They claim that their emissions are mostly steam and they use ‘best available control technology’ etc. If controls worked there wouldn’t be millions of pounds of toxic emissions.. They claim their emissions are colorless and odorless. Well, dioxins and arsenic and most of the other toxins are colorless and odorless. The major stakeholders, the citizens breathing the air, won’t even know that they and their children are being damaged. These companies say the government will protect the people. Oh? They must have forgotten DDT, Lead, Mercury, dioxins and Agent Orange, PBA,PFA, formaldehyde, benzene, etc., etc, . . . all chemicals approved by the government at one time but later found to kill or maim thousands including brain damaged children.

    Why would anyone promote burning biomass unless they don’t know the risks at all or own a business that would make them a lot money, and because of greed, ignore the risks?

  6. Painting the woody biomass process as a forest-eating, fawn killing monster machine ignores many facts. Sustainable biomass harvesting from overstocked and unhealthy forests only has to have less climate impacts than doing nothing in our forests, including wildfire “management”. The carbon foot print for wildfires is massively large, compared to any scale-up in biomass operations we could muster in the next 10 years. Biomass burners do have pollution controls, where wildfires do not. Biomass burners can shutdown on bad-air days. Wildfires cannot. Emissions from biomass burners can be manipulated. Wildfire emissions cannot. Wildfire smoke can drift for 1000 miles. Biomass emissions do not. Wildfires push GHG’s and CO2 far into the upper atmosphere, where plants cannot easily re-sequester the carbon.

    Currently, here in California, we have LOTS of forest biomass. After the sawlogs are removed, the biomass is piled at the landing and burned, because there is no market for it. (Existing valley ag facilities only pay for transportation costs) The treated forests are ready for a regular program of prescribed fires, more vigorous and resilient, sucking up CO2 at a greater rate, and enhancing endangered species habitat, all at the same time.

    Don’t believe the biomass-haters when they say 30-50 million acres of forests will be clearcut. We haven’t had clearcuts in California National Forests in 17 years!

    • Can you tell us why most of the “biomass” incinerators in California built in the 1980s are shut down?

      Its because they are polluting, expensive and impossible to supply.

      Are you advocating intentionally causing CO2 emissions by dragging wood out of forests with heavy machinery, chipping it, hauling it, and incinerating it for so called “clean and green” energy? The leftover wood in the forests after a logging job is needed to replenish soils so a new forest can grow, don’t you think? Or is the new forest going to magically sprout up from nothing?

      Think again. Check out

      • Sadly, Meg, you aren’t seeing the realistic big picture. Those old biomass burners were based on burning the ample amounts of agricultural waste in the San Joaquin Valley. I’d bet those power plants could be retrofitted to meet a better standard of pollution mitigation.

        The real choice on woody biomass from forests is, do we burn the biomass on the landing (with no pollution controls or energy capture), or do we find a way to use this energy. Forest projects are designed to make forests healthier, more vigorous and resilient, make better habitat for endangered species and reduces fire risks and damages.

        The biomass energy was never meant to be a significant component of our energy needs. Forest biomass could be a nice by-product of restoration forestry, if the economics and infrastructure was right.

        Imagine a network of collection points, all linked by powerlines (existing or not). The biomass transportation costs could be radically-lowered by having semi-portable biomass burners, operating during peak hours at distant locations far from people’s residences.

        What I am advocating is capturing the energy and pollution from biomass that is destined to lose its carbon ANYWAY! Restoring forests to their former densities and species compositions present no problems at all from soil depletion. I’m also advocating having healthy managed forests, where sickly, dying forests now stand. When forest burn catastrophically, soils are radically-depleted of essential nutrients.

        Dead, dying and burning forests are HUGE sources of atmospheric carbon and GHG’s. Hundreds of millions of tons of toxic gases are spewed into our atmosphere EVERY YEAR, from preventable wildfires.

  7. Reduce consumption? Per capita electricity use has doubled in 40 years. The Baby Boomers were going to change the establishment. All they did was double the establishments carbon footprint. They must have all become Republicans.

    I’m undecided on Biomass. Government subsidies to force a market fail dismally(ethanol-electric car). But then, Tax credits subsidize 30% of wind and God only knows how much for solar-and that doesn’t count the cost to build “backup power generation”. So why not throw some towards biomass.

    This is a bit off track, but can anyone tell me if the “renewable electricity mandates” that have been enacted by many states means “installed nameplate capacity” or “megawatt/hours produced”? A 1000 megawatt wind farm does not produce 24,000 MW in a day. Wind power effeciency is terrible(something like 25% nameplate capacity). Take Colorado for example, which I think has mandated 20%??. Does that mean that 20% of the “Mega watt hours produced” have to come from renewables? That would mean that 60% of the “capacity” would have to be wind. I’ve got a feeling, the dirty little secret is the 20% renewable mandate is really only “producing” 5% of the electricity we use. At least biomass can be expected to be 90% effecient(available), up there with coal and Nat. Gas.

    I may be wrong. I can’t find the answer. I do know that most of our environmental policy is enacted so we can feel good about ourselves. And conventional wisdom is loath to make itself look stupid.

  8. The U.S. already gets 50% of its so called “renewable energy” from incinerating “biomass” – defined under various laws as construction and demolition debris, poultry litter and wood from forests.
    These biomass incinerators emit 50% more carbon dioxide per MW to the atmosphere than burning fossil fuels.

    The typical 50 Megawatt biomass incinerator emits about 650,000 tons of CO2 per year.

    Not ONE biomass incinerator has shown that the carbon they emit will be resequestered by terrestrial sources or the ocean in any meaningful time frame.

    Hundreds of new incinerators are in the permitting pipeline and being funded with ARRA stimulus money under US Treasury’s Section 1603 renewable energy grant program. Others are teed up for U.S. Dept. of Energy Loan Guarantees. This money should go to conservation, efficiency, and “renewable energy” that doesn’t emit CO2 24/7/365. We are building new incinerators and locking in the production of more CO2 emissions for the next 30 years, while making Americans sick with asthma, heart disease, cancer and more.

    “Biomass” is a greenwashing scam funded by with money the bankrupt U.S. treasury is borrowing from China. “Homegrown” energy? Don’t think so; just another scam by Duke Energy, ADAGE, Sterling Energy Assets, Iberdrola and more – to rip us off, Enron style.

    Biomass is not the answer, it is an unmitigated financial, health, and ecological disaster.

  9. So how much CO2 does a large forest fire release into the atmosphere? How much pollution? How much carbon storage is lost? I would think utilizing biomass that was going to burn any way, instead of a fossil fuel, would reduce the carbon foot print. I remember the old “split wood not atoms” bumper stickers, from the environmental movement in the 60’s . Wood is a renewable resource. Controlled combustion of wood is a lot cleaner than the uncontrolled combustion in forest fires, slash fires, and broadcast burns.

  10. Welcome, new commenters! I appreciate your participation.

    Meg and William-

    From a quick read, it seems that you are saying that cutting trees simply for energy and heat is bad and could lead to deforestation which is an interesting topic.. but as some of the folks have pointed out, that’s not what we’re talking about in the west.

    In additions, many people already use trees for heat- I don’t know what percentage in Ohio vs. Vermont vs. Wyoming. But I do see substantial firewood piles in my trips around Elk Country. So I think what you mean is “industrial scale” biomass; yet there are a host of scales and technologies, and I doubt that one size fits all. For example, one plant takes 1200 acres per year of pine thinnings.. is that industrial or not?


    If we can all agree that we can’t switch to solar, wind and nuclear in the next 15 years (do we agree?) then we might try to think about the pros and cons of different technologies using a table with alternative energy sources across the top (rows) and the characteristics to be compared as columns.

    Note: if we frame this as a question of choosing appropriate technology, it becomes clear that an answer in Colorado does not have to be the same answer as in Vermont. I am wary of people who make national or international assertions about what is appropriate or not.

    I would like to know if others have additional technologies, or characteristics of technologies, to add to the biomass table below. The idea is that we will examine the pros and cons of different energy sources over the next 15-20 years, with the assumption that we will have transitioned to low or no carbon sources by then.

    biomass tables

    We will probably need to break down biomass into different technologies and scales, but this give us a start.

  11. Biomass in the South might be even better than in the West. I spent 5 months on the Sumter NF, doing stand exams (40 hardwood species, 20 of them oaks!), and saw that the old cotton fields were planted with pines. Some of them were even machine planted in disturbingly crowded rows. Much of the South has climate well-suited for growing trees. It is an interesting debate about what to do with these loblolly pine plantations. Private landowners were encouraged to plant pine forests, as they were promised that there would be a market for the biomass. When that didn’t materialize, plantations became choked and the growth rates plummetted. Foresters recently told plantation owners to spend the money to thin their plantations, and that they would recoup their costs when the sawlogs are harvested. Trees can grow really, REALLY fast down there. I measured a 10-year radial growth of 3.5 inches!

    Yes, we’ve been warned about overbuilding biomass infrastructure, and that restrictions and guidelines must be enacted. I welcome these ideas as essential to sustainable restoration forestry, habitat enhancement and resource protection. None of the regular posters here are for “uncontrolled destruction for profit”. We like having current data and observations, and biomass harvesting is merely a tool in the toolbox for treating forest problems. As the value of biomass increases, that means more “non-commercial” work can get done. And, “Gaia” knows, we have an awful lot of “non-commercial” work needed in our sickly forests.

    • I haven’t seen an article about biomass yet that includes the view that sustainable harvesting of excess trees has an enormous net-benefit to the environment in reducing wildfire risks and intensities. Biomass is but a fraction of that excess, and it is very clear that catastrophic wildfires impact the ground’s capacity to re-sequester atmospheric carbon. Articles always seem to assume that widespread clearcutting solely for biomass will occur. How about a study on real-world forest management, Matt? One that includes sustainable harvesting, increased uptake of carbon in managed stands, sequestered carbon in sawlogs and reduced wildfire emissions?

      Of course, such a study would never get funded, in today’s result-based scientific world. No one (of consequence, in today’s government) wants to know THOSE results.

      • > “… reducing wildfire risks and intensities”

        > “… reduced wildfire emissions”

        Trouble is, you can’t predict where a wildfire is going to occur, much less a catastrophic one. So you would have to “treat” an enormous number of acres across many landscapes and consume (burn) and enormous amount of biomass from them just to prevent one such fire. Sounds like a no-win proposition to me, whether you are looking at economics or reducing carbon emissions.

  12. Larry/Fotoware: You’re shooting the messenger here…oh wait, I’m not even the messenger…as all I’ve done above is simply forwarded an article from HCN on biomass. Sorry, but therefore Larry, I’m a bit confused by your statement “How about a study on real-world forest management, Matt?” Yep, “how about it” Larry?

  13. Forwarding qualifies for messengership, Matt. If you hadn’t forwarded it, we wouldn’t have had to see a nearly-useless criticism of biomass practices not used in the US. The anti-biomass camp is well-known for their hit-and-run tactics, lumping ALL biomass techniques and situations into one big mess. Generally, those folks don’t want ANYTHING harvested from our National Forests, even if it is environmentally sustainable and carbon negative. We’ve already seen the preservationist slant of Meg’s preferred website, proposing vast new (dead)wilderness and National Parks.

  14. Matthew. thanks for posting this! I see many things I agree with in this article.

    First- like all technologies, the devil (or I might add, the angel) is in the details AND most importantly comparison to other technologies that are available So global statements about “x” is always bad are always questionable.

    I do think they have confused the strict carbon part of the equation with overall being greener. For example in this paragraph:

    Whether any given form of biomass energy is indeed carbon-neutral depends on a lot of factors, including the fuel source, whether it’s used to produce electricity, heat or some combination, what type of fossil fuel is replaced, and what would happen to the trees or plants if they weren’t used for fuel. Newer technologies to produce energy from biomass — converting it into liquid fuel or combustible gas, for example — are cleaner and more efficient than burning it. Changes in indirect land use also matter: If a soybean farmer switched to a biomass crop like cane, another farmer might be tempted to clear forested land for soybeans, thus releasing additional carbon.

    First of all our discussion here is probably about woody material with no land conversion involved, and so we have a couple of options to consider
    Yard waste
    Sawmill waste
    Material from thinning conducted for other reasons (wildlife habitat such as getting bigger trees sooner in Pacific NW , commercial timber production in the SE, fuels treatment in the Interior West). The alternative is leaving it on site, burning or using. In the case of fuel treatments, leaving it on site is not an option.

    Carbon neutrality may come in two forms, absolute and relative.
    It is only if we are considering relative that what type of fossil fuel is replaced should be relevant.

    What would happen to the trees or plants if not used, is also a relative carbon neutrality compared to other energy sources.

    This raises a variety of factual questions which we need to explore.
    1. How many technologies are out there for heat and electricity and biofuel.. – do they differ in carbon released to the atmosphere?
    2. How do they compare in terms of other environmental effects?

    I am thinking we need a link from the table in the comments above to another table just about woody biomass.. any virtual interns or grad students interested in investigating this?

    There is also the possibility of using biochar for further carbon benefits in this paper by Dumroese et al. and this interesting article from FSEEE’s Forest Magazine. Also here’s another HCN article from October 30, with an emphasis on local control over production and economic benefits.

  15. Executive Order 12866 is policy regarding cost benefit and identifying externalities.

    Please read E.O. 12866. Please reread the section on externality. How does externality apply to carbon neutral?

    Is burning biomass really cost effective, or would digestion or pyrolysis before burning yield greater returns?

  16. Where is the baseline, or do nothing report? Someone has already asked. Let me ask again in different words. What problem are we trying to solve?

    Please take a few minutes to understand the differnce between demand and energy. Think of demand as how big the power plant must be. Think of energy as how long that power plant must run.

    Now say something to me in algebra. Like: why equals emex plus bee. Where why is the total cost of electricty. Composed of the sum of fixed costs, bee and variable costs emex. I know, I know, your eyes are glazing over. Take a break, do some jumping jacks.

    How can understanding demand and energy be of use? California has an Independent
    Service Office which was to do away with the Enron problem that got Governor Davis canned. Look up ISO for the graphs of daily electricity use. The graph looks more like a picture of a snake eating a pig.

    So what? Well to satisfy the lump, utilities have to build huge power plants and huge distribution lines which are used at peak only four hours a day.

    The peak electricity is supplied by peaking stations. What is the relative cleanliness of a peaking station to a base load station? Pretty dirty.

    Cut up the pig before feeding it to the snake. Pump water at night. Shed load when the air conditioners come on.

    “Not my problem” is the reply. “Not my problem” is the problem.

    Smart meters? Want to see people foaming at the mouth? Introduce smart meters.

  17. Thank you for the question, Sharon. This disussion started with this premise:

    “To me, though, the starting point has got to be understanding the different approaches to carbon accounting and why they are different.”

    E.O. 12866 and the Office of Management and Budget Circulars establish policy for cost benefits. Government Acounting Standards Boards establish financial accounting standards. The tools of accounting are in place. The chart of accounts for carbon have not been standardized. That is a really arcane statement. Please ask if the language seems strange.

    I don’t really know that we have an established baseline for carbon accounting. Some type metric. Instead of miles per gallon, would miles per net ton of CO2 provide something to measure and compare?

    Instead of dollars per kilowatt hour, would net tons of CO2 per kilowatt hour provide a uniform standard of comparison?

    I use the word net in the sense that carbon used in the construction of the infrastructure must be included in the calculation. The bee of why equals emex plus bee.


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