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Biomass Facts

For the purposes of this discussion, the term “biomass” refers to forest/woody biomass and/or the burning of construction and demolition debris. This policy dos not apply to agricultural waste as fuel, algae crops, or farm crops which may include switch grass, woody herbaceous crops, short rotation woody crops such as willow. These topics are addressed in other Sierra Club energy policy documents.

What is Biomass Energy?

What is Biomass Energy? Biomass energy is the production of energy (electricity; liquid, solid, and gaseous fuels; and heat) from biomass. Biomass may be any organic matter including dedicated energy crops and trees, agricultural food and feed crop residues, aquatic plants, wood and wood residues, animal wastes and other organic waste, and construction and demolition debris.

Currently in Massachusetts most biomass that is proposed to be burned is either from forest and timber products (woody biomass) or construction and demolition debris.

MA Regulatory Status

Because biomass has been defined under current statute and regulation as “carbon neutral” and “renewable”, biomass plants are being promoted aggressively by the state and energy speculators toas "green" energy. With the passage of the Green Communities Act and other regulatory initiatives, biomass became classified as renewable energy and became eligible for incentives to promote its development, including eligibility under the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard (RPS). Because CO2 emissions from most types of biomass plants are not counted, some coal-fired plants in MA are even considering converting to partial or total biomass energy. While this may take such plants emissions "off the books" it does not take them out of our atmosphere. This would result in a net increase of carbon emissions.

Environmental Impacts and Global Climate Change Leading climate research scientist call for an immediate reduction now of 2 to 3 percent per year in carbon emissions in order to avoid reaching the “tipping point” and to stave off the worst impacts of global climate change. A recent study for the G-8 summit found that even the richest nations are not on track to meet a “danger threshold’’ of limiting temperature rises to below 2 degrees Celsius. A massive net release of carbon now from biomass may make it impossible to achieve these goals.

The Sierra Club has very serious concerns over the administration’s policy to promote large-scale biomass in the commonwealth as a means to reach renewable energy targets. The recent "hold" (December 2009) placed on new facilities eligibility for renewable energy credits pending the outcome of a newly commissioned state study does not address the multiple plants already proposed in MA.

Impacts of Biomass Energy include:

  • Large scale biomass used primarily for electricity generation is extremely inefficient and emits 1.5 times as much CO2 than a coal-fired power plant.
  • Claims of “carbon neutrality” for biomass do not account for externalities and full lifecycle accounting of carbon, including harvesting processing and transportation of fuels. Truckloads of biomass fuel would need to be transported on regional roads, adding to diesel particulate pollution and additional fuel use.
  • Large scale biomass calls for the harvesting of millions of trees on tens of thousands of acres - some of it on state forest lands. Multiple facilities proposed in MA all claim competing areas for harvesting fuel at a rate that is not sustainable.
  • Biomass consumes and removes organic forest material, including that which would normally remain behind and contribute to the forests ongoing ability to sequester carbon.
  • Burning biomass can release carcinogenic substances and particulates in our air water.
  • Biomass facilities evaporate and/or otherwise use massive volumes of water to operate and can impact rivers, streams, and water supplies.

Conclusion

The Sierra Club has significant concerns over the production of energy from biomass, including the net emissions of CO2 and airborne toxins, the inefficiency of biomass energy production, impact on ecosystems and public health, and assumptions made regarding “carbon neutrality” of such operations.

The Sierra Club opposes the unsustainable exploitation of forest ecosystems and all biomass energy generation processes which contribute to the destruction of existing forests, or jeopardize the reestablishment or protection of biological corridors to link isolated forest stands. The Sierra Club opposes projects which rely upon ecologically destructive clear-cutting, in-wood chipping where excessive amounts of biomass are removed from the land, and conversions to non-native species which undermine native

The Sierra Club believes there is little likelihood that the current energy resource potential for forest biomass can be increased sustainably. Generally, the use of this material as biomass for commercial energy production creates demand for the byproducts of poor forest management and logging practices, and increases the pressure to disturb wild forest ecosystems. Some very small scale biomass-to-energy projects may be acceptable under strictly controlled conditions, but we are not confident the regulatory or mitigation framework exists to achieve this goal. This view is reinforced by the recent decisions to not require environmental review for plants that will harvest millions of trees from tens of thousands of acres of forest, as well as burn construction and demolition debris which releases toxins.

See Also
Mass Sierra Club Biomass Policy

Forests & Parks

Threatened Lands

Mt. Wachusett

Forest Management on Massachusetts Public Lands  

The Parks Protection Package, a legislative initiative

Other organizations:

Mass Environment Energy Alliance

 

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