NPR: Wood Energy Not ‘Green’ Enough, Says Massachusetts

You can listen to the National Public Radio segment from All Things Considered here.  The opening snip is below:

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:  When it comes to renewable energy, wind and solar get a lot of attention. But wood actually creates more power in the U.S., and Massachusetts state officials are scaling back their efforts to encourage wood power. It may be a renewable resource, they say, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for the environment. NPR’s Elizabeth Shogren has that story.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: Power plants that turn wood into electricity aren’t anything new. They’re called biomass plants. They’ve become more popular as states have tried to reduce the use of fossil fuels. The idea is wood is a renewable resource. You can always grow more, but the state of Massachusetts decided it wasn’t enough to be renewable. It wants climate-friendly fuel, so it kicked most power plants that burned wood out of a program that helps renewable electricity plants earn more revenue.  Mark Sylvia is commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources.

MARK SYLVIA: I think what it says is that Massachusetts is very curious about focusing on our climate goals.

SHOGREN: Massachusetts wants to cut its greenhouse gases 25 percent by 2020 and power plants are a huge source of greenhouse gases, so the state asked some scientists to take a hard look at the greenhouse gas footprint of power plants that burn wood.  John Gunn of the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences was one of the researchers who did the study. He says the results challenged conventional wisdom.

JOHN GUNN: Basically, we found that if you’re going to switch from using fossil fuels for energy to using more wood for energy that, for a period of time, the atmosphere would see an increase in greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide.

14 thoughts on “NPR: Wood Energy Not ‘Green’ Enough, Says Massachusetts”

  1. Personally, I tend to gravitate towards peer reviewed studies myself. Interesting NPR didn’t cite the paper that this research came from. I little research shows that it came from a non-profit out of Maine with a small portion of the story told. The snip that was left out:

    “Over time, however, re-growth of the harvested forest
    removes this carbon from the atmosphere, reducing the carbon
    debt. After the point at which the debt is paid off, biomass begins
    yielding carbon dividends in the form of atmospheric greenhouse
    gas levels that are lower than would have occurred from the use of
    fossil fuels to produce the same amount of energy (Figure 1).”

    Please focus on the “for a period of time” portion of John Gunn’s quote.

  2. Massa. is NEVER satisfied when it comes to energy conservation. I think its great, but we keep on spending more and more. We need to reach a good market first before we continue to downpour our money on solar.

    -Sharone Tal

  3. The very brief NPR story was woefully inadequate in regards to providing the public with the facts exposing the myth of biomass being carbon neutral.

    An international committee citing several peer reviewed scientific papers ( states in the introduction:

    “It is widely assumed that biomass combustion would be inherently ‘carbon neutral’ because it only releases carbon taken from the atmosphere during plant growth. However, this assumption is not correct and results in a form of double-counting, as it ignores the fact that using land to produce plants for energy typically means that this land is not producing plants for other purposes, including carbon otherwise sequestered. If bioenergy production replaces forests, reduces forest stocks or reduces forest growth, which would otherwise sequester more carbon, it can increase the atmospheric carbon concentration. If bioenergy crops displace food crops, this may lead to more hunger if crops are not replaced and lead to emissions from land-use change if they are. To reduce carbon in the air without sacrificing other human needs, bioenergy production must increase the total amount of plant growth, making more plants available for energy use while preserving other benefits, or it must be derived from biomass wastes that would decompose and neither be used by people nor contribute to carbon sequestration.”

    (This, of course, supports the Manomet conclusions.)

    The Scientific Committee of the EEA went on to state:

    “The potential consequences of this bioenergy accounting error are immense. Based on the assumption that all burning of biomass would not add carbon to the air, several reports have suggested that bioenergy could or should provide 20% to 50% of the world‟s energy needs in coming decades. Doing so would require doubling or tripling the total amount of plant material currently harvested from the planet‟s land. Such an increase in harvested material would compete with other needs, such as providing food for a growing population, and would place enormous pressures on the Earth‟s land-based ecosystems. Indeed, current harvests, while immensely valuable for human well-being, have already caused enormous loss of habitat by affecting perhaps 75% of the world‟s ice- and desert- free land, depleting water supplies, and releasing large quantities of carbon into the air.”

  4. Well, then, I guess the extreme option is to close all coal and gas power plants, in favor of whatever baseload they can get from their “green elite” energy, eh? Or, turn their entire populations into “snowbirds”, who fly south when the weather turns cold. Yep, ban all the coal-powered electrical devices, regardless of the impacts. When the future won’t be resolved to some people’s exceedingly narrow views, the past is ultimately blamed for today’s inaction.

    The anti-biomass fanatics continue to use scare tactics, which aren’t based in fact. Their claims of 30 million clearcut acres is quite bogus. They reverse engineered that figure, based on that 50% biomass energy figure, as applied to the US. NO ONE in the Forest Service is saying that we would be ramping up clearcutting, to feed biomass plants. And, NO ONE in the Forest Service ever will!

  5. Is water vapor “like” carbon dioxide? I think one of the key problems with this whole trace element in the atmosphere industry that has grown so large in the past 25 years, is that most of the public has been misled into believing greenhouse gases perform the same basic function as greenhouse glasses. And that scientists clearly understand the role of atmospheric water vapor in estimating global temperatures.

    I wrote a peer reviewed paper for EPA on the topic of carbon sequestration in conifer forests as a method of controlling the climate about 20 years ago. My research didn’t gibe with Hanson’s “predictions” and that was the last I was paid to do work on this topic. Principal conclusions were that the predictive models were too simplistic to accurately predict weather or climate, either one, and that converting the nation’s agricultural lands into tree farms to store carbon didn’t seem like a good idea. Mostly, I tried to demonstrate that the predictive models were incapable of accurately predicting the past, and therefore equally incapable of predicting the future. I continue to believe that the same problems persist.

    The bottom line is that plants love CO2, and the world is fed by plants. The climate can only get colder or warmer, and the latter is better for people and for most plants and animals. If humans can actually control the climate by choice of cars, light bulbs, and energy sources, then that is great news. We should be getting better with practice as time goes on and data becomes more refined. In the interim, we should be wary of any governmental regulations designed to affect the climate — I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but certainly there has to be an underlying motive to this nonsense that makes some sense.

    Why is the government trying to do this, really? And what are they basing these actions on, exactly? As a veteran of the Cold War, Nuclear Winter, Holes in the Ozone, and Y2K Hysteria, I have to remain skeptical of these current claims of Apocalypse. Especially when “believers” and “deniers” can be generally classified as Democrats or Republicans. I’m guessing money, mostly.

  6. “The anti-biomass fanatics continue to use scare tactics, which aren’t based in fact. ”
    (Larry Harrell Fotoware)

    To what, and to whom are you referring? The scientific committee of the EEA? The Manomet scientists? NPR? (More likely), me?

    As usual, I find it difficult to respond directly to your comments because they are so filled with unsupported hyperbolic claims casting wild aspersions, using loaded terms, and generally denigrating and labeling those who dare express points of view differing from your own.

    Can’t you (Doctor Zybach and Derek) find therapy for this compulsion to personally attack others in order to get your points across?

    Your choice to comment this way (especially alongside the “Charter for Compassion” in the right column directly across from your comment) mystifies me as to how you (or the moderator of these comments) regard such comments as convincing, constructive or consistent with the NCFP goal expressed in “About”:

    “Our goal is to solicit broad participation from a cross-section of interests in a respectful atmosphere of mutual learning on topics related to the Forest Service and public lands policy.

    • There were many claims of “30 million clearcut acres” if biomass were to be considered as “green”. Similarly, I guess we could say that if solar was going to be 50% of our energy baseload, we would need 30 million acres of solar panels across the US. Or, if we wanted wind power to supply 50% of our baseload, we would need to install 80,000 windmills on remote ridgetops across the US. I just picked those numbers out of the air but, I think you get the idea of how things can be twisted and slanted to match whatever message one might want to discredit.

      Pretending that biomass could supply so much power, under today’s real world restrictions is not based in fact. I think we could claim that responsibly harvested biomass could qualify as “green”, and some folks simply don’t want that.

      • Thanks Larry,
        We are in full agreement “Pretending that biomass could supply so much power, under today’s real world restrictions is not based in fact.”, and that is consistent with the conclusions of the EEA scientists — citing several peer reviewed scientific papers.

        (But without a specific reference to, what, where, and by whom, are the “many claims (made) of 30 million clear cut acres”, I cannot respond to what you are referring to, especially when it is purported to be “similar” (equivalent) to 30 million acres of solar panels and 80,000 windmills.)

        I think I do get the gist of your comment now, and can agree with both you and the EEA scientists who also concluded in the paper I referenced, there are ways to use biomass for energy production (such as using industrial waste streams for energy production) which can be preferable to using fossil fuels.

        The main problem in the present US energy policy and the role of biomass as a substitute for the use of fossil fuel, of course, (as always with timber harvest) is a matter of appropriate scale, and the gross carbon accounting error being applied.

        • My point is that applying a similar “inappropriate scale” to other forms of green energy, like wind and solar power, results in a “less green” form of energy, with all the impacts thrown in. Pretending that solar or wind power can supply up to 50% of our energy needs (and still be elitist green) is as ludicrous as saying that biomass could supply the same amount. And, yes, we have already seen where some people resist wind and solar power projects. Surely, we’d see even more backlash if we intended to ramp up the scale on wind and solar projects, radically, to supply half our energy needs.


          “EWG calculates that the current goal of generating 25 percent of U.S. electricity from renewable sources by 2025 would require the equivalent of clear-cutting between 18 million and 30 million acres of forest.”

          “By 2030, as utilities become more dependent on biomass to meet their renewable fuels targets, the devastation could encompass 50 million acres of forest.”

          Would that be all on private timberlands? Of course, the Forest Service would never clearcut such vast areas.

  7. David: It is you, again, who persists in attacking others (read your last few posts as examples), myself included, in order to try and make whatever point it is you’re trying to make. I’d hazard a guess as to why you seem to need to do this, but you would be offended.

    Please let me point out one fact to you in this discussion chain — your so-called “peer reviewed science” had the word “opinion” in its URL THREE times! First I’ve ever seen such a thing. I think they’re trying to tell you something, David — something about people (including scientists) having opinions.

    Finally, I’d appreciate it if you’d stop trolling my posts and feeling compelled to respond. It’s an irritating habit and it never seems to add much to a discussion. If you are that interested in me and my opinions, you can send me an email or call me on the phone and discuss it with me personally. Trolling is unnecessary.

    • Doctor Zybach,
      Again, you are using unsupported claims. Unless you provide the evidence of my comments “attacking others”, then I cannot meaningfully respond. It is not my intention to “attack” and I hope you will provide this evidence so I know what your claims of attacks are.

      Similarly, your “peer reviewed” assertion of “Log Banks” as a strategy for sequestering carbon underwater, underground, or in arctic climates for decades or centuries”, went unsupported in your referenced paper on carbon sequestration.

      I suspect that failure to support your — opinion — (in contrast to the EEA scientists backing up their opinion with accepted published science) had a lot more to do with it being “the last (time you were) paid to do work on this topic.”(1993), than the fact that the paper ‘didn’t gibe with Hanson’s “predictions.”

      Given you provided no hint of even a back-of-the-napkin calculation of areal extent and volume required to meaningfully store trees to sequester carbon this way; the logistical exercise of cutting down trees to take them someplace else to prevent decomposition (but excluding anaerobic methane production?) in order to grow more trees; the colossal transportation and environmental costs of this curious cut and bury exercise; the economic investments required, (the failure of any return on those investments) — and other myriad practical, real world considerations — I now understand your personal experience of peer review. You have every reason to be a skeptic of peer review based upon your paper alone.

      Conversely, and in regards to your assertion that, “Principal conclusions were that the predictive models were too simplistic to accurately predict weather or climate”, Hansen, et al. has recently provided a thoroughly researched paper using historical weather data to demonstrate his predictive models were quite accurate (though understated), and that we can expect further increasing temperature extremes in magnitude and frequency.

      Here’s an excellent interview demonstrating the wonderfully simple approach he used:

      In response to your claim that,
      “The bottom line is that plants love CO2, and the world is fed by plants. The climate can only get colder or warmer, and the latter is better for people and for most plants and animals.”

      “Climate can — only — get colder or warmer?” Climate can do a lot more than that.

      “Climate encompasses the statistics of temperature, humidity, atmospheric pressure, wind, precipitation, atmospheric particle count and other meteorological elemental measurements in a given region over long periods.” (Wiki)

      Further, climate responds to forcings creating positive feedbacks unaccounted for in your “bottom line” which is neglecting the concurrent weather extremes and disastrous consequences that the Hansen, (et al.) models predicted.

      THAT is the bottom line — not your simplistic assertion “plants love CO2”.

      • David: Thank you for the improved tone and coherence of this latest posting. So far as your verbal assaults on other participants in these discussions (myself included), I will leave it to you to go over your more recent posts and see if you can spot the snide comments and baseless assertions you’ve made regarding the character and capabilities of others. They’re pretty obvious.

        I am also pleased that you have actually taken the time to read my paper on carbon sequestration. It was one of my earlier scientific publications, made while I was just starting my graduate studies, and there are portions of it I wish I had made clearer. One of those portions was my tongue-in-cheek proposal to log old-growth and float a portion of the trees to Antarctica, or sink them beneath the water so they wouldn’t rot and therefore return carbon-dioxide to the atmosphere — and so other trees storing more carbon dioxide could be grown in their stead. It was intended to be wryly humorous, not serious.

        The point I was trying to make is that growing trees to sequester carbon is a dumb idea. Despite the stated opinions of others, my opinion remains that forests are essentially carbon neutral over time. I have seen little in the literature — including your submissions and Hansen’s assertions — to make me think otherwise. Bottom line is that I don’t think C02 is poisonous, and also believe that our oceans and atmosphere can readily absorb a lot more of this gas and with mostly beneficial results to the plants and animals (including people) of our planet.

        PS One area in which we are in complete, and maybe surprising, agreement is the fact that my paper stands as a fine example of why I don’t trust the peer review process as it has been practiced by the EPA and other agencies and universities the past few decades. A good peer review would have resulted in a much better paper — and maybe even continued funding for my research.

  8. Thanks to Doctor Zybach for offering his paper for discussion.

    (broken link to the referenced Doctor Zybach “carbon sequestration in conifer forests as a method of controlling the climate” paper)

    Here’s the correct link:

    Here’s an additional link to the recent Hansen et al “Climate Dice” which gives a rebuttal to his critics, including further data to prove just how wrong those critics are:


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