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May 5, 2009

Biomass: Renewable Energy?

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Filed under : General Green
Fallen Tree

Biomass: Renewable Energy?

A debate is underway in Congress about whether biomass is renewable energy.

What?  How could there be any question, you may ask?  After all, recycling forest waste use (woody debris that is known as fire fuels) to generate electricity produces little to no CO2 emissions.

Just a few months ago, new biomass plants were called for in Obama’s Green Agenda for the nation.  Today, groups like the Sierra Club and the National Resources Defense Council, and climate change experts including Al Gore, are claiming that woody debris from federal lands should not count as renewable energy in a new bill to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  The assertion is that such a classification would “encourage unsustainable logging in federal forests to meet demand for biomass power plants.”

On the other hand, Oregon Representative Greg Walden is challenging these claims.  Last week Walden took on Gore:

“If forests are being thinned now to reduce fire danger, why not turn that woody material into energy?  When that material comes out, why in the devil do we say its not renewable and cant be turned into pucks like this to help reduce carbon from coal [holding a disk made of compressed sawdust]?”

Biomass has always been considered part of the global climate change solution, and many plants are successfully reducing dependence on fossil fuels:

Gore’s response is that forest management programs in Canada have not resulted in reduction of wildfires.  Implicit is the assertion that the U.S. should not engage in forest management… or at least that the results of thinning trees should not be used for biomass energy.

Autumn Dream

A source of clean, renewable energy

Frankly, I don’t get this position.  Studies are showing that forests are dying as a result of climate change.  In Oregon alone, there is nearly an 80-year backlog to treat forests to remove dead trees that are proven to be a forest fire hazard.  These are not new projects that would be authorized if biomass is considered renewable energy.  The work will have to be done sooner or later.  Simply by stating that biomass is not renewable energy will not prevent or stop the thinning projects that are required to protect both human and forest health.

Moreover, the very definition of the term “renewable” means that it can be replaced.  Trees will grow again, requiring thinning and management of woody debris again in the future.  This is in stark contrast to fossil fuels which, once gone, cannot be recreated.

Oregon legislators are pushing for amendments to the energy bill that will be considered by the Energy and Commerce Committee this week.  Among other things:

  • Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) offices would be required to be heated with biomass
  • Woody debris on federal lands would be defined as renewable biomass
  • Biomass from federal forests would count toward federal renewable energy quotas

We’ll have to wait to see what comes out in the end from Congress’s work to cap greenhouse gas emissions.  House Speaker Pelosi has predicted that the work will take over a year to complete, given that the issues range from biomass to cap and trade programs.

By the time we reach the 40th annual Earth Day, its possible that our lawmakers will meet their promises to “reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions to 20 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2020, and by 83 percent as of 2050.”

I can’t help but think that biomass plants have an important role to play in this effort.  Its the ultimate in recycling!

What are your thoughts?

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