Europe’s Green Ambitions Don’t Grow on Trees
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  • MWFlorida

    Several of the facts about biomass in this post are misleading and appear to reflect a knee jerk, ideological bias against renewable energy.

    First, the fossil fuel energy consumed in harvesting, processing, and transporting biomass is small — a few percent of the total energy produced. This factor hardly detracts from the renewable nature of this fuel.

    Second, when biomass is harvested, trees are almost always regrown on the land. For more than a century the U.S. has experienced reforestation. The acreage of forested land is much higher today than it was in 1900. Yet this growth has occurred despite vastly higher consumption of wood for paper, lumber and other forest products. Energy supplies will be no different.

    Third, from the landowner’s standpoint, trees are a less desirable agricultural product than food crops. So trees are typically grown on marginal land that isn’t suitable for growing higher value corn, wheat, etc., rendering the European Environmental Agency’s comments about biomass displacing food crops irrelevant.

    Fourth, much of the current biomass fuel supply is derived from byproducts of another operation, such as sawdust from sawmills, bark from paper mills or logging residues left behind in the forest after harvesting. These waste materials are not suitable for making lumber, paper or other forest products. If they aren’t collected and used for energy production, they rot away and generate methane, which is 25 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. For these waste biomass sources, energy production actually is better than carbon neutral, it actually reduces greenhouse gases, since all of the carbon is combusted to carbon dioxide and no methane is produced.

    Biomass is a valuable energy source. It constitutes a surprisingly large 3% of the total energy supply in the U.S. Biomass is complex story that must be carefully analyzed, not summarily rejected as another green boondoggle.

    Mike Whiting
    Winter Park, FL

    • BrianFrankie

      Mike,

      Generally agree, but your facts on degradation are not correct, or, more accurately, only partially correct. Wood and wood products decompose to methane only in anaerobic conditions, which are not common for wood wastes. Primary decomposition is aerobic, resulting in CO2, with a substantial portion of the carbon remaining as solid products (peat, loam, etc. which sequesters the carbon). Only a small portion will be emitted as methane.
      Your final sentence is the key – the biomass story is very complex, and details are critical to determining whether any particular application is worthwhile. Properly done, biomass can be a valuable contributor to reducing GHG emissions, effectively becoming concentrated solar energy. But the point of the Via Meadia article remains – Europe has royally screwed up their environmental incentives and subsidies, biomass included, resulting in considerable wealth destruction and no proportional impact on GHG emissions.

  • Andrew Allison

    Although there’s a good argument (CO2 sequestration) to be made for “farming” trees, it vanishes like a puff of smoke (sorry!) it the wood is burned. The huge plantations of fast growing trees in the SE USA are sequestering enormous amounts of CO2 in cellulose products. Burning them would simply returns the CO2 to the atmosphere.
    I have no idea of the “carbon economics” of burning waste products, but suspect that it might be better to leave the carbon sequestered.

    • MWFlorida

      If the trees are replanted, as they almost always are, the CO2 is sequestered again. Growing trees are a part of the carbon cycle.

      The carbon in waste biomass does not stay sequestered. Wood doesn’t last forever. If it is not burned, it instead decomposes into methane, which is 25 times as potent a greenhouse gas as CO2. Hence the use of waste biomass for energy is better than carbon neutral.

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