Bandit President Jerry Morey shares his views on the future for biomass energy.
The scientific community rates biomass as a carbon neutral form of energy. The science behind this says that, although biomass will emit as much carbon dioxide as coal when combusted in a power plant, if not utilized for energy would decay naturally and release just as much carbon dioxide anyway. In addition, the emissions from decaying wood includes more harmful methane gas. When compared to coal, combusting wood does not release harmful sulfur and mercury emissions found in combusting coal.
So, the science for biomass as a carbon-neutral form of energy is sound. But I am of the opinion that biomass or wood energy is and will be carbon negative.
Most people do not realize the important role that biomass energy plays in providing renewable energy. Biomass contributes 52% of our renewable energy in the United States. Much of that comes from cogen plants within the forest products industry, as there are many stand alone wood-fired electrical generating systems throughout the US outside of the forest products industry. We have nearly a dozen here in Michigan that have operated profitably since the 1970’s. More than 50 public schools in New Hampshire heat with wood chips. Northern Michigan University uses a wood-fired power plant to generate heat, air conditioning and electricity for the campus. Clearly, the number of biomass energy facilities operating outside the forest products industry is significant.
The power we receive from biomass exceeds wind, solar, geothermal and hydro combined. Biomass is economically viable, and although it contributes more than all other sources of renewable energy, wind and solar receive most of the press and nearly all of the government subsidy.
Europe is focusing on biomass much more than wind and solar. Europe’s commitment to biomass outdistances their ability to produce enough raw material, thus they are importing biomass from many parts of the world including both North and South America.
Let’s focus on the source for biomass. Some will come from Ag waste, but most will come from trees – the planet’s most prolific converters of carbon dioxide into oxygen. A given parcel of land can only support so much tree growth until it reaches it’s capacity. Here in central Michigan our timberland will support between 70 and 100 tons of fiber per acre. Once a stand of timber reaches that capacity there is a natural thinning process that occurs. Trees grow and die off, resulting in a fewer number of healthy, carbon sequestering larger trees. However, because they still stand, the total quantity of wood per acre doesn’t change. Left to nature, you end up with a climax forest that has few large diameter trees. In Michigan’s Lower Peninsula where I live there is very little market for smaller diameter trees. There was a small market for this type of material for paper, but four of the five pulp mills that existed in our area have closed. If you drive through our forests you will see quantities of fallen trees that are rotting on the forest floor. A strong biomass market would provide an outlet for that material, allowing us to selectively thin our forests utilizing the trees that will eventually die and decompose while allowing for the removal of diseased trees and trees that have already fallen, but have not decomposed.
What would remain would be a healthy, vibrant forest that would add new growth to higher value trees suited for wood products, such as furniture and new home construction. More importantly, this healthy forest would continue to absorb carbon dioxide at a greater rate, while producing oxygen. A strong biomass market would also put idle land back into tree production, further increasing carbon dioxide absorption.
I think it’s a shame that nearly all of federal timberland is not managed. I do not know of many countries that do not manage their forests. There is a program currently in play, called the Federal Forest Stewardship Program. A test project in Arizona currently allows federal timber stands to be thinned, with much of the thinned material going into a biomass plant in the area. The stands of trees after thinning are released and the growth of the remaining trees is amazing. But the big benefit from this program is that these stands of timber are almost fire proof. In fact, this thinning project was widely recognized as helping to save homes and towns in Arizona following the Wallow Fire that burned 500,000 acres in 2011. Through the thinning and forest management practices, there is no fuel on the ground to sustain a forest fire. Not only that, but think of all of the carbon dioxide emitted from forest fires.
A strong biomass market will significantly increase the amount of land that is allocated to producing wood fiber. As this country was settled, the amount of land allocated to forests has increased because of the demand for wood. The size of our forests in the US is significantly greater than they were when the first European settlers arrived, even though there were vast virgin forests.
An aspect of biomass energy that is often overlooked is the economic impact it provides. Unlike all other sources of energy, biomass employs a significant number of people in multiple industries, while returning money back into a larger part of the economy. It injects capital into rural areas that have been most hurt by recent recessions.
Loggers are needed to harvest the material. Equipment is needed to harvest the material. Local merchants are needed to support the harvest. Foresters are needed to manage the timberland. Biomass energy also puts money back into landowners in rural areas, giving them incentive to properly manage their forests and plant more trees.
A strong biomass market will also supply an outlet for urban wood waste, which is often left in landfills. In addition, this can provide a use for other wood waste like pallets, wooden crates and railroad ties that are not already recycled. Clean up from natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes and ice storms can take months or sometimes years. There’s no reason this debris cannot be repurposed as a renewable, carbon-negative energy source.
Biomass energy is carbon negative because with a strong biomass market, there will be incentive to plant more trees than are harvested to absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. That theory is already proving itself. In areas where there is a strong biomass market, new areas are being planted, forests are being managed, carbon is being absorbed and oxygen produced. The Southeast United States and South America are two great examples. Energy plantations are being put in place. Trees are being engineered to grow faster, absorb more carbon dioxide and produce more oxygen. Patents have even been issued for these new super trees. But trees will grow almost everywhere. They are one of nature’s best solar collectors. If you want an investment tip you might consider one the forest land REIT’s that have been formed.
As I look out across the horizon at what will provide us with renewable energy, I vote for a majestic forest that will harbor wildlife and unique plant growth as opposed to the desolate landscape of a wind farm and solar panels that only work under certain conditions. Biomass energy is economically viable, infinitely renewable, already a natural part of our existing carbon cycle, and it keeps working all day, every day. It’s a scientifically-supported solution for multiple problems, and it’s ready to be implemented today.
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