Public perception puts pressure on biomass
Biomass had so much promise. But now it's about to go up in smoke. Only a few years ago, energy production from biomass had one of the brightest, most promising futures in both the US and Europe. The EU's 20/20/20 Renewable Energy Directive set a sizable proportion of the 20% renewable energy goal to come from biomass. It looked like biomass was the perfect answer to the renewable energy puzzle. The problem no one anticipated was the smoke.
The trouble for biomass as a public energy source, as opposed to an industrial fuel, started in Massachusetts. In 2010, under then-Governor Deval Patrick, biomass was to become a key component of the state's renewable energy policy, and it seemed like a slam-dunk. But then public opinion started asking about the smoke. The prevailing wisdom at the time was that biomass was "carbon neutral", which meant that burning wood would add no more carbon dioxide, a known greenhouse gas, to the atmosphere than could be reabsorbed.
What would become known as the Manomet Report officially turned the theory of biomass' carbon neutrality on its head. The report concluded that cutting down native forests for biomass would not only significantly increase the amounts of carbon dioxide in the environment, but that using forest biomass for energy was more damaging to the environment than using coal or natural gas. That was enough for Gov. Patrick. With public opposition stronger than ever, his office agreed to recommend much stricter standards for biomass plants, effectively killing their use in the state.
Questions about the science of the carbon neutrality of biomass are no longer an issue. Once the public perception of biomass became "burning forests for fuel," the writing was on the wall. In the UK, which arguably embraced biomass more than any other country, the turning point came in February 2012 when plans for a biomass plant in Leith were scrapped. Even the British Furniture Confederation (BFC) has jumped into the scrum, saying the subsidies for biomass are driving up the cost of wood and permanently crippling the furniture industry, an industry that generates almost 3% of Britain's total manufacturing output.
Martyn Eustace of Two Sides, one of the strongest advocates for the pro-environmental aspects of forest products, even has his concerns with using biomass as an energy source. "Forests, which have grown in Europe by 30% over the past 50 years and are increasing in size by 1.5 million football pitches every year, are not only a valuable source of fiber but also vital to the overall balance," says Eustace. "Growing trees to burn them on an industrial scale cannot be their best use and makes the cradle-to-grave process extremely short lived."
He's right, of course. Or as Margaret E. Sheehan, a lawyer with the Biomass Accountability Project, said in an article in Forbes, "It only takes a minute to burn a 70-year-old tree, and it takes 70 years to grow it back." These kinds of arguments are sometimes called logical paradoxes, because they are such undeniably true statements that it is nearly impossible to prove their truth. Few would disagree that cutting down wide swathes of forests to burn for electricity is a monumentally bad idea.
The answer from the biomass industry is that biomass was always intended to be used on a small scale, and only to use waste wood and other waste materials. Eustace agrees this is a better approach. "Biomass should be focused on burning unwanted materials. Using products that would have gone to the landfill, for example."
What went wrong?
The rush to find alternative energy solutions turned biomass into a booming global market. More than one study has said that sources for biomass would have to be found outside Europe for the EU to reach its renewable energy goals. To meet demand, wood pellet plants in the Southeast US, some commissioned directly by European power producers, made biomass one of America's fastest growing exports. Hampered by fires and closures, these plants are still finding their way.
Is there a future for biomass as a viable renewable energy source? My guess is there is a long, slow slog ahead. Public perception about the dangers of biomass will be hard to change, even if biomass on a limited scale and, in certain instances, can make a strong case for itself. There are industry groups focused on using biomass in more environmentally conscious ways, such as the Bioenergy Producers Association, who are working to change statutes to allow burning landfill material as biomass. Those efforts present their own environmental challenges, but they are a step in the right direction.
The dreams of wood pellets plants in the U.S. shipping millions of tons of biomass to Europe's power plants may be on life support now. Although the EU will not abandon its renewable energy goals, government support for subsidies of biomass is slipping. Without these subsidies, the biomass industry has little reason to undertake the intensive capital investments to use biomass as a fuel source. In return, ports and shippers in the US and Europe will need to take a serious look at what kind of volumes to expect for biomass in the next 5 - 10 years.