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Burning the Forest for the Trees

The popular method of burning biomass is not as good as it looks—and can produce even more CO2 than burning carbon.

The FTSE 100 British energy giant Drax was recently booted from the S&P Global Clean Energy Index on the determination it wasn’t actually producing “clean” energy, that is, carbon neutral. It was a huge blow to the Drax Group (not to be confused with Drax the Destroyer from Marvel Comics), which has vowed to become the world’s first “carbon-negative” energy company by the end of the decade.

Most importantly, it’s not because Drax was doing something wrong per se, it’s because its product—energy from burning wood pellets—was rightly deemed to be a net carbon dioxide producer. Earlier, the index dropped French biomass generator Albioma which, like Drax, has used wood chips to replace coal in its power plants. That’s bad news for woody biomass producers everywhere.

Woody biomass has become progressively more popular in Europe, although not so here in the U.S. At least not yet. Here, total biomass consumption accounts for only about 5 percent of all energy produced, including transportation. But much of that isn’t woody, rather other sources, especially ethanol (which I’ve been writing against since a 1987 National Review cover article, so I’ll give it a break here and focus on woody).

Biomass generally benefits from confusion over two vastly different terms that often are used interchangeably: “renewable” (or sustainable) and “carbon free.” Both appeal to the touchy-feely, warm and fuzzy set, but they are not necessarily the same. If you accept the anthropogenic global climate change thesis, your concern is (or should be) carbon neutrality. That is, reducing emissions of so-called “greenhouse gases.” “Carbon-free” sources such as wind and solar are both, but not everything that is one is the other.

Woody biomass is clearly “renewable,” whereas technically fossil fuels are finite. Even if enough fossil fuel reserves were found to last a thousand years, nay a thousand thousands, finite means finite. (Then again, as a severe critic of nuclear fusion research I nonetheless grant that commercial fusion is not an if but a when once we take it seriously, instead of making it a gravy train for physicists.) That leaves the “carbon neutral” argument for or against woody biomass.

On its face, the formula for biomass burning is simple. While the wood or other plant material is growing it absorbs carbon dioxide, then upon burning it’s released. So it all balances out and is a net zero emitter. It thus, allegedly, doesn’t matter that woody biomass burning releases 65 percent more carbon dioxide per megawatt hour than modern coal plants and an amazing 285 percent more carbon dioxide than natural gas combined-cycle power plants, which use both a gas and steam turbine together. Never mind that tree burning is an excellent source of those “criteria” air pollutants that both the U.S. and Europe have made such good progress in decreasing including particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, lead, and mercury.

But hey, it is carbon neutral right? Eh, not so fast. In 2014, the U.S. EPA found that “carbon neutrality cannot be assumed for all biomass energy a priori.” It said that it all depends on a host of factors such as time frame considered, type of biomass, the combustion technology, which fossil fuel is being replaced, and what forest management techniques are employed in the areas where the biomass is harvested.

We’ll try to keep it simpler here.

One seemingly obvious problem is that the tree we burn today releases its carbon dioxide today, whereas the replacement tree will be sequestering over the next several decades. So if global climate change is already causing havoc because of currentgreenhouse gas levels and increased temperatures, as we’re told ad nauseum, why would we want to increase those levels today for the sake of lowering them some decades down the road?

The time frame problem concerns the age at which trees are harvested. As you might guess, different types of trees sequester carbon dioxide at different rates from each other during their lives. But regardless, they also sequester differently at different ages.

“Wood bioenergy can only reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide gradually over time, and only if harvesting the wood to supply the biofuel induces additional growth of the forests that would not have occurred otherwise,” said John Sterman, an expert on complex systems at MIT, to PhysicsWorld.

Using a lifecycle analysis model, Sterman and his colleagues writing in Environmental Research Letters calculated the payback time for forests in the eastern U.S.—which supply a large share of the pellets used by Drax and other biomass burners in the U.K.—and compared this figure to the emissions from burning coal. Under the best-case scenario, when all harvested land is allowed to regrow as forest, the researchers found that burning wood pellets does create a carbon debt. That is, with a payback time of between 44 and 104 years. By which time, we’ll supposedly both be burned to a crisp and under water.

But the natural desire for growers to make or increase profits means planting trees and waiting several generations to harvest may not make much sense even if over time the value of the product does increase. Your wine might be finer if aged another several decades, but you have bills due today. Yes, biomass tree growers can sell such products as fir trees for Christmas after just 7 years or so. But those plots with trees designated for biomass burning still need tending and meanwhile pay nothing.

Indeed, according to a reporter for Politico writing earlier this year, a “frequent refrain in North Carolina forestry is that rotations are getting shorter,” precisely to maximize biomass profits. “Tree farmers are cutting saw timber after 30 instead of 40 years, and sometimes even harvesting pulpwood after 15 years instead of thinning their forests and waiting for higher-value harvests,” he wrote.

Mary Booth, an ecosystem ecologist and director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity in Pelham, Massachusetts, shares Sterman’s concerns. In 2017, she used a model to calculate the net emissions impact—the difference between combustion emissions and decomposition emissions, divided by the combustion emissions—when forestry residues are burned for energy. “It is the percentage of combustion emissions you should count as being ‘additional’ to the carbon dioxide the atmosphere would ‘see’ if the residues were just left to decompose,” she explains.

Her calculations revealed that even if the pellets are made from forestry residues rather than whole trees, even after 40 years’ net emissions are still 25 to 50 percent greater than direct emissions. Like Sterman, Booth concludes that it takes many decades to repay the carbon debt, and she concludes that biomass energy can’t be considered carbon neutral in a timeframe that is meaningful for climate-change mitigation. So it appears in terms of alleged climate change, Drax really is something of a destroyer.

In fact, the whole “plant a tree” thing is no solution to global climate change, little more than more warm fuzziness and scam. You can pave paradise, put up a parking lot, then announce you’re planting trees somewhere else and everyone loves you. The world’s largest source of online dirty videos, Pornhub, sought to upgrade its image by, as news reports put it, planting new trees for each number of videos watched. But as it happens, it was only a minor subset of their videos and we don’t know if they’re planting any anyway. Most of us probably consider Pornhub as slimy as ever.

In his 2021 book, Bill Gates downplays the value of new trees. “It has obvious appeal for those of us who love trees, but it opens up a very complicated subject…its effect on climate change appears to be overblown,” he writes. He says the most effective reforestation strategy is to stop cutting down so many of the trees we already have and that “you’d need somewhere around 50 acres’ worth of trees planted in tropical areas to absorb the emissions produced by an average American in their lifetime.” There’s just not enough land on the globe.

So with so little going for it, what’s the appeal of wood biomass?

In part, as noted, it’s “greenwashing”—corporations and rich individuals who want to be seen as environmentally friendly for buyers, fans, and, not least of all, regulators. Google “biomass” and “greenwashing” and you’ll see environmental groups lining up to assert that woody biomass is little more than a scam. That includes the Big Boys such as the Environmental Working Group, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Greenpeace. They may be obsessed with inefficient intermittent energy technologies in wind and solar while eschewing all else, including nuclear, but their arguments against biomass are spot on.

A major part of the scam is “subsidize it and they will come.”

Back in 2009, the E.U. committed itself to 20 percent renewable energy by 2020 and included biomass on the list of renewable-energy sources, categorizing it as “carbon neutral.” Several countries embraced bioenergy and started to subsidize the biomass industry, including now ex-member Britain. The Drax Group was formerly a “bad guy” in that it burned coal for electricity. Now that it’s switched to wood pellets it is officially a good guy and has done well by it as a recipient of over $1 billion annually in British taxpayer subsidies, according to Politico. That’s a stunning amount for one company to be receiving, and all by switching from one high polluter to an even higher polluter. So what’s not for the biomass industry to like?

According to an NRDC report, in 2017 just 15 E.U. member states assessed spent more than $7.5 billion to directly subsidize bioenergy, mostly Germany and the U.K.. But that may be changing. Last February, the Dutch Parliament voted to stop issuing new subsidies for 50 planned forest biomass-for-heat plants, albeit leaving in place about $700 million for around 200 heat-producing existing Dutch biomass plants. Opposition to biomass in the Netherlands approaches 100 percent. But don’t think lobbying government officials is something Americans invented.

Still, a European shift could be a real game-changer for European woody biomass and invoked to prevent growth in the U.S. For now, the U.S. has a byzantine system of grants and loans for various aspects of woody biomass that would explode the gentle reader’s head if there was even an attempt at explanation. It probably doesn’t amount to nearly what Drax alone receives, but under President Biden that may change. And as Taxpayers for Common Sense has concluded, “It’s time that the biomass industry stood on its own two feet without taxpayer support.”

Of course, it cannot and will not. Burning of biomass in the U.S. is something that, as the late great Barney Fife intended to say, should be “nipped in the bud!”

Michael Fumento (www.fumento.com) has been an attorney, author, and science journalist specializing in hysterias for over 35 years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Sunday Times, the Atlantic, and many other fora.

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