Biomass - Up In Smoke, Burning The Future

Friends of the Jordan fully supports efforts to convert to green, carbon neutral energy sources. Burning trees and tree products in biomass plants, however, is NOT green, NOT carbon neutral and NOT sustainable. Biomass plants harm our environment, public health and the economy. We call on Governor Granholm to follow in Massachusetts’ footsteps and call for a moratorium on renewable energy credits for biomass plants. Better alternatives exist.

According to a team of top international scientists, wood-burning biomass plants are considered carbon neutral because of an “accounting error.” On line research news Science Daily wrote, “Current carbon accounting, used in the Kyoto Protocol and other climate legislation including the European’s cap and trade and the America Clean Energy and Security Act, does not factor CO2 released from tailpipes and smokestacks utilizing bioenergy, nor does it count emissions from land use changes when biomass is harvested or grown.” According to a US Department of Energy study, if not corrected, this incentive could “globally lead to the loss of most of the world’s forests as carbon caps tighten.”

What Does This Mean For Michigan?

*Five wood-burning biomass plants already operate in northern Michigan. New plants are proposed in Mancelona, Traverse City, Rogers City and Frankfort, and in the Upper Peninsula. Why the sudden rush? Government subsidies (our tax dollars via the American Recovery and Reimbursement Act) are paying up to 30% of the capital costs for building biomass burners. These subsidies will expire in less than 3 years, hence the drive to build as many new plants as possible.

*13,000 tons of wood chips are required to generate 1 megawatt of power for one year, or 35 tons of wood each day. The proposed Mancelona plant will produce about 36 megawatts of power which would consume over 1,200 tons of wood (the equivalent of approximately 28 clear cut acres) EACH DAY. According to Ben Brower, project manager for Mancelona Renewable Resources, partner in the plant, fuel will come from a combination of state, private and federal forest lands. One megawatt supplies only 1,000 homes with electricity. How much of our forests are we willing to sacrifice to a furnace for such a small increase in power?

Underground roots of mushrooms called mycorrhiza, digest the dead wood, thereby keeping the carbon which was stored up by the trees, in the forest soil. Dead trees provide nutrients for new plant growth, food for insects, which in turn feed birds and animals. They are necessary for the cycle of life, necessary for forest biodiversity.

Will Biomass Plants Create Jobs and Affordable Energy?

*Biomass plants are receiving almost 75% of the renewable energy subsidies, as opposed to wind or solar, according to Rachael Smolker, Global Forest Coalition.

*The cost of biomass energy without government subsidies would be substantially higher. And biomass plants will be competing with other wood product users. As competition for limited forest land increases, prices of everything from toilet paper to particle board, furniture, housing and construction will increase. Is burning really a wise use of our valuable forest resources?
*According to the Jobs and Energy for Michigan website, biomass plants tend to be built in economically depressed communities with high unemployment. The number of job opportunities these plants claim to provide, however, is usually overstated and health care costs to the surrounding communities rise due to large quantities of particulate matter emissions.

*Northern Michigan is a mecca for snowmobilers, hunters, fishermen, family camping and other outdoor activities. Cutting and burning our forests upon which our tourist economy depends, does not make good economic sense.

Better Alternatives Exist

*One lone windmill produces 1% of the energy produced by Traverse City Light and Power Co.

*The Department of Energy named Michigan as one of the states with the highest potential for wind manufacturing jobs in the nation. A recent study by the Land Policy Institute at MSU indicates that over 300,000 megawatts of energy might be available off Michigan shores. This represents the equivalent of hundreds of large (1,000 MW) coal plants.

*Michigan also has abundant supplies of natural gas. While a fossil fuel, it emits only half the emissions of coal or biomass, and could be used together with conservation, until other green technologies are in place.

*Biomass plants are widely used in Europe. Since many of these countries have already cut down the overwhelming majority of their trees, they rely on imported wood from Asia, South America, Canada and the US to stoke their biomass furnaces. Just one Swedish company, for example, imports 400,000 metric tons of trees from Florida every year. Nestles Corporation is already exporting Michigan water. What is to stop international corporations from exporting Michigan forests as well?

Health Risk

*Burning wood releases toxic chemicals into the atmosphere such as sulfur oxides, carbon monoxide, dioxins and volatile organic compounds. Various irritant gases such as nitrogen oxide cause ground level ozone, or smog, which can scar lungs. Particulate matter releases are as high or higher than for coal. People living near biomass plants are at higher risk for cancer, asthma and other lung related diseases. The American Lung Association opposes biomass plants, stating that their emissions pose unacceptable health risks.

Is Biomass Carbon Neutral?

* Tree-burning biomass plants release 50% more CO2 into the atmosphere than do coal burning plants. To claim biomass burning as carbon neutral and sustainable because new trees can be grown is a hoax. Tree growth cannot keep up with demand. It takes decades for a new tree seedling to replace a larger tree in carbon storage capacity. But it takes only minutes to release that carbon dioxide into the atmosphere through burning. And what happens to the released carbon dioxide? According to the US EPA (April, 2009), “… for a given amount of carbon dioxide release today, about ½ will be taken up by oceans and terrestrial vegetation over the next 30 years, and a further 30% will be removed over a few centuries, and the remaining 20% will only slowly decay over time such that it will take many thousands of years to remove from the atmosphere.”

*Removing dead woody debris from forests leads to soil depletion and compromises future growth. When a tree dies, the stored carbon is released slowly, over decades or longer. Much of the rotting takes place underground, as the tree falls down and is eventually covered with leaves and soil.
Northern Michigan was once blanketed in pine forests, with white pines often reaching over 200 feet tall and over 5 feet in diameter. It took loggers a mere 20 years, between 1870 - 1890, to cut most of those trees down. The population of Michigan at the time? A mere 1.6 million. Our population today is over 10 million, and our energy and land needs have grown exponentially. Burning our forests for fuel is a step back in time. We need to do all we can to protect the resources that make Northern Michigan a unique and beautiful place to live and visit.

For more information and sources cited, contact Friends of the Jordan


Science Daily research news
Green Nightmare: Burning Biomass is Not Renewable Energy
Proposed Biomass Plant: Better Than Coal?
Massachusetts Sierra Club
Northern Express, March 8, 2010 – The Rush to Biomass by Anne Stanton
Burn Up the Biosphere and Call It Renewable Energy, by Rachael Smolker