Biomass Thermal: The Logs That Break the Forest’s Back

A sector of the biomass incineration industry claims to be turning over a new “green” leaf by building smaller, slightly more energy-efficient facilities focused on heating rather than electricity. Meanwhile, behind the smokescreen, biomass thermal advocates are supporting much of the same forest-raiding, climate-busting, and lung-searing policies as the biomass power pushers.

If successful, the biomass thermal industry’s legislative agenda won’t result in smaller, higher-efficiency biomass heating facilities replacing larger, lower-efficiency biomass power facilities — it will simply spur the construction of both.

Biomass Power Loses Steam

The biomass energy industry continues to suffer one black eye after another as the human health, environmental, and economic impacts of smokestack energy become clear to the public, elected officials, and the media. Once the darling of “renewable” energy advocates, the reputation of industrial-scale biomass incineration has gone down the tubes.

Biomass incinerators continue to be built — largely thanks to massive federal and state taxpayer subsidies — including the 100-megawatt Gainesville Renewable Energy Center in Florida, the 75-megawatt Berlin Station in New Hampshire, and the 50-megawatt Rothschild incinerator in Wisconsin. However, other projects have fallen by the wayside in recent years, including failed proposals in Klamath Falls, Oregon, Milltown and Scottsburg, Indiana, Pownal, Vermont, and dozens more.

As biomass energy’s dark side emerges — thanks, in no small part, to the grassroots anti-biomass movement — many former biomass boosters are changing course…or are they? Instead of abandoning “alternative” energy’s low-hanging fruit completely, many industry and environmental groups are steering the discussion away from the inevitable health, climate, and ecosystem impacts of biomass incineration, towards “efficiency” and scale.

Feeling the Heat

Many organizations that once advocated for all forms of biomass incineration — including stand-alone power stations operating at 20-25% efficiency, wasting three out of four trees burned — now endorse facilities making slightly better use of the waste heat that results from the combustion process.

These “more efficient” facilities can range from the 30-40% efficiency of a 39.5 megawatt proposal by Beaver Wood Energy/Bechtel in Fair Haven, Vermont, to a 60% efficient 2.2-megawatt thermal-led combined heat and power facility proposed for Placer County, California, to 70% efficient thermal-only facilities proposed for schools and college campuses, such as the University of Montana.

Instead of calling for an end to the expansion of industrial-scale biomass energy, many environmental organizationshave aligned with industry groups to become cheerleaders for “sustainable” biomass and “biomass done right” — which in many cases simply means building facilities that waste 50% of trees burned rather than 75%. Typically ignored in their pro-biomass advocacy is the fact that building many small biomass incinerators in a region can have the same ecological footprint as building one large facility.

While wasting less wood than biomass power stations, most smaller thermal biomass facilities use less pollution control technology on their smokestacks, due to the expense. As organizations advocate for an expansion of biomass heating applications, they may actually be paving the way for a more widespread proliferation of asthma-inducing particulate matter, carcinogenic Volatile Organic Compounds, toxic dioxin, and other deadly air pollutants.

The American Lung Association opposes the construction of all new biomass facilities, not distinguishing between power or thermal — recognizing that all smokestacks emit air pollution which is inhaled by human beings.

Industry Smokescreen

In 2010, Biomass Magazine, “the world’s leading biomass industry trade publication,” changed its name to Biomass Power and Thermal. Was the purpose of this rebranding to point out the entire range of the industry? Or was it to highlight the new, environmentalist-endorsed “green” thermal component of the business?

Upon first glance, groups such as the Biomass Thermal Energy Council (BTEC), Sustainable Northwest, andNorthern Forest Center appear to distance themselves from “old school” organizations such as the Biomass Power Association, by advocating for biomass thermal facilities. Yet a clue to their intentions is the fact that nowhere in their websites, press releases, or sign on letters to government agencies is there any opposition to the construction of 25% efficient power stations.

In October 2013, the Northern Forest Center and Sustainable Northwest teamed up to send a sign on letter to President Obama, Congressional leaders, and federal agency heads asking for “broad support for biomass thermal policy,” and “specific support” for three pieces of policy: the Biomass Thermal Utilization Act, the Woody Biomass Utilization grant program, and the Community Wood Energy program, included in the Farm Bill.

While the Biomass Thermal Utilization Act relates exclusively to biomass thermal, both the Woody Biomass Utilization grant program and the Community Wood Energy program advocate for biomass power facilities, in addition to biomass thermal facilities.

According to the USDA Forest Service, the Woody Biomass Utilization grant program funds the generation of “green energy for heating and electricity,” while the Community Wood Energy program can finance “electric power production.”

The Woody Biomass Utilization grant program also advocates for the unscientific practice of logging forests under the guise of “wildfire prevention,” as well as after wildfire.

While biomass proponents such as Sustainable Northwest call wildfire “wildly destructive” and a threat to forests, science demonstrates that wildfire is a natural and essential process of a healthy forest ecosystem. Logging before and after wildfire harms the forest ecosystem and doesn’t protect homes — which can only be done through defensible space 100-200 feet around a structure.

The Bio-masquerade is Over

Industry’s bio-masquerade has ended and they’ve revealed their true faces. The biomass thermal sector, for all intents and purposes, is nearly indistinguishable from the biomass power sector, which isn’t all that different from the liquid biofuels sector.

In addition to their collaboration on legislative policy, the biomass energy industry has begun issuing public calls for industry solidarity.

However, communities across the U.S., including college campuses, are catching on to the ruse and have begun opposing the construction of the “more efficient” thermal facilities, with a facility canceled at Evergreen College in Washington, opposition to a thermal facility by neighbors of Goddard College in Vermont, and dissent brewing in response to a proposal at the University of Montana.

Those familiar with the biomass debacle at University of South Carolina — where a combined heat and power biomass incinerator was finally shuttered in 2011 after more than three dozen breakdowns and a “potentially lethal explosion” — know the impact of “more efficient” biomass all too well.

The construction of a district heating biomass project for Montpelier, Vermont has been “very intrusive and disruptive,” according to city manager William Fraser and has had “significant economic impact” on downtown merchants, according to Montpelier Mayor John Hollar.

Will other communities — and the anti-biomass incineration movement — learn to oppose the biomass incineration industry as a whole, or will they fall for the polluters’ promises of “biomass done right?”