Is Biomass Electricity a Smart Thing to Do?


There is tremendous debate and controversy over biomass, and in some locations there is significant grassroots opposition to biopower projects.  A recurring question is whether utilization of biomass for energy production is carbon neutral.  What are the actual benefits for helping solve the global warming crisis?  Scientific research is continually refining our understanding of these questions.  With each new study or paper, we get a clearer picture of just where and how biomass is good for the climate.  We at SACE constantly track the latest news and information, because when biomass doesn’t actually help the climate, it’s not worth our efforts.

Visiting with relatives over the holidays, I was asked, “is biomass electricity a smart thing to do?”

Related to this question, an interesting news item caught my attention a few weeks ago.

brainpower-slideThe glossy online magazine called recently published a story listing “America’s Brainiest Cities.” Skimming the list of cities, I was intrigued to find Gainesville, FL ranking at #14.  Gainesville is the site of the recently approved GREC biopower plant.  As I continued reading through the top 20, I saw seven more cities that also have biomass projects proposed or operating, including:

Excerpt from the Brainiest Cities List, highlighted to show cities having or considering biomass facilities.
Excerpt from the Brainiest Cities List, highlighted to show cities having or considering biomass facilities.

So, apparently some of America’s brainiest cities think biomass energy is a smart thing to do.

Well, just what is it about renewable biomass energy that is spurring these “brainy” cities to support its development?  Here’s a few of our thoughts:

Stored Solar Energy? Valuable.

Several of these cities use biomass energy for district heating – a highly efficient use of renewable biomass.  Because trees and other plants store solar energy in the form of biomass as they grow, district heating is a smart way to release the sun’s warmth when you need it (such as during cloudy winters in Seattle, WA or St Paul, MN).  Combined production of heat and power (CHP) is a similarly efficient use of biomass.

Here in the South, though, we don’t have as much use for all that heat-energy.  Southerners use much more energy on cooling and refrigeration than heating.  While it is certainly possible to use biomass to drive chillers, additional research and testing is needed to asses the economics of biomass-fired combined heat, power, and chilling.

Biomass-heating and biomass-CHP are clearly helpful in fighting climate change — even in places where trees grow very slowly.   Both technologies were highlighted in the recent Manomet study as being useful in the fight against climate change, with very short timelines before “payback of the carbon debt.”

Healthy Forests, Ecosystems, and Soils?  Precious.

There is also value in the intelligent and careful use of biomass for improving the health of our Southeastern forests, special ecosystem restoration, and in improving the health of soil.  If done right, creating new markets for biomass for energy can help in all three of these areas.

Consider our Southeastern forests. Tens of millions of acres of private woodlands in NC, SC, GA, FL, and TN are in degraded condition.  Woodland owners describe decades of shortsighted management, where – for example – the very best, strongest, tallest trees have been cut, leaving behind the worst specimens.  This practice of “high-grading” is like the Bizarro world‘s version of Darwin’s natural selection: The least vigorous specimens are left to multiply, and we are left with the worst genetics possible.  This means the landowner is left with stands of timber having little economic value; If the landowner can’t keep the land in production of marketable wood, the pressure to sell-out for development is increased.  Having new energy markets for low-value biomass will help heal the history of poor management.

Map showing historical range of the magestic Longleaf Pine Ecosystems throughout the Southastern United States. Source: America’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative –

Ecologists and wildlife specialists tell me of restoration projects they hope to undertake  – like expanding the majestic longleaf pine ecosystems.  These are projects that will necessitate removal of the un-sellable trees, brush, and invasive plants.  This “junk” may not have high ecological value, and it may be worthless to the local pulp-mills and lumber mills, but it does have value for energy.  Long-standing biomass energy facilities like Burlington, VT’s McNeil Generating Station have delivered decades of value to their communities by providing an incremental economic boost to woodland ownership and struggling wood products industries.  That’s smart (and another reason it’s on the list!).

Biomass is also valuable in that it can feasibly sequester carbon while releasing energy.  That’s right, biomass can go carbon negative.  This is where the biomass is heated to release the energy, while creating a durable form of charcoal that has value as a soil amendment, called biochar.  It’s a pre-commercial technology that still needs lots of work, but it’s already showing impressive benefits to soils, increasing crop productivity, and reducing nitrous oxide emissions from soils.  Nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at forcing climate change, so slowing these emissions is extremely valuable to our planet.

Pushing Aside Fossil Fuels? Priceless!

Biomass is also valuable in that it can immediately displace coal when co-fired in power plants.  One recent study collaborated by Duke University and NCSU researchers showed “biomass can achieve significant greenhouse gas reductions” by maximizing woody waste cofiring with coal in the Southeastern United States.

In addition to cofiring, we think that smartly designed new-built biomass power plants will play a role in meeting strong goals for renewable energy.  Biopower can also be a direct substitute for coal- and natural gas-fired electricity — as smart grid technology is developed and refined to manage the variability of solar photovoltaic and wind power.

The ability to displace fossil fuels in the near term is one of the greatest values of biomass, as reinforced by the famous climate scientist, Dr James Hansen, in this recent quote:

Well-planned, sustainable biomass power plants are a viable source of clean renewable electricity, and thus are helpful for the task of phasing out coal-fired power plants.”

An important part of a diverse energy mix

As we transition towards a cleaner, lower-carbon economy, biomass is also valuable as one part of a diverse mix of energy sources, including efficiency (first and foremost).  From the perspective of the electric utilities, the value of biomass electricity is the fact that it can be dispatched, and that it has high availability.  To “dispatch” a generator means you can turn a biopower plant off and on when you need it, and “availability” means it runs reliably, between 85% and 90% of the hours of the year.  Among renewables, this is valuable because biomass can then provide support for the time when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not bright.

The Hard Choices

Today very few electric utilities in our region have a practical understanding of utilizing a smart grid that allows solar and wind to play major roles.  The utilities’ job is to constantly balance generation sources with changing demand.  Each day, as millions of people arrive at work, flick on the lights, turn-on computers, crank up the machines, adjust the thermostat, etc., demand for electricity changes.  And even if the blowing of the wind or the shining of the sun do not coincide with these demands, the electric utility must still deliver electrons into the grid.

Map of coal-fired power plants in the Southeast, courtesy of NPR, "Visualizing The U.S. Electric Grid."  Dots are sized with respect to each plant's annual net generation of power.  Source:
Map of coal-fired power plants in the Southeast, courtesy of NPR, “Visualizing The U.S. Electric Grid.” Dots are sized with respect to each plant’s annual net generation of power. Source:

In very simple terms, utilities rely upon massive centralized generators to meet the all-day electricity demands, such as factories, office lighting, heating and air conditioning.  These are demands that tend to remain level over time, and these demands are typically met today with coal-fired electricity, nuclear power, and hydroelectric dams.

As the utilities learn how to run a smart grid, and once they begin building it (both things easier said than done), we will be able to use lots of solar and wind power.  Afterall, the wind is always blowing somewhere.  And as the utilities and electricity consumers begin serious investments in energy efficiency, we can reduce demand for all baseload electricity (coal, nuclear, hydroelectric, and biopower).

But in the meantime, in order to shut-down the most polluting coal plants — the old ones built in the 1950′s and 1960′s — then we need new baseload generation to replace them.

Smart bioenergy can have an important role in meeting that demand.  In the Southeast, scientists tell us that biomass is an abundantly renewable resource.  This is why SACE is working hard to learn (and help others learn) the complexities of sustainable bioenergy.  We’ve got to ensure we do it right and maximize the benefits, as these “brainiest” cities are doing.

The magnitude of the challenge is enormous.  Even reaching the goal of 25% electricity from renewables by 2025 is ambitious.  Based on our analysis we’re convinced that reaching this goal will be much more difficult and expensive without biomass electricity.  One day, we humans will provide for 100% of our energy needs using renewables.  And perhaps someday we will achieve this without biopower.  Until then, is smart bioenergy right for your smart city’s energy mix?

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I would have added to his section on biochar the production of fossil fuel free ammonia & char (SynGest, ) and the 52% conservation of NH3 in composting with chars, as just the newest pathways for the highest value use of the fractionation of biomass.

And maybe the projected net income from soil carbon sequestration,
The Impact Of A Renewable Electricity Standard & A Carbon Payment Program—A-Carbon-Payment-Program/2010-12-29/Article.aspx?oid=1294886&fid=

The Soil Carbon Standard committee’s work with USDA, EPA and Congressional Ag committees offers real hope, with expansion to ISO status, the world can all be on the same soil carbon page.

Comment by Erich J. Knight on January 1, 2011 11:50 pm

All political persuasions agree, building soil carbon is GOOD.
To Hard bitten Farmers, wary of carbon regulations that only increase their costs, Building soil carbon is a savory bone, to do well while doing good.

Biochar provides the tool powerful enough to cover Farming’s carbon foot print while lowering cost simultaneously.

Biochar systems for Biofuels and soil carbon sequestration are so basically conservative in nature it is a shame that republicans have not seized it as a central environmental policy plank as the conservatives in Australia have with their ; “Carbon sequestration without Taxes”.

Given our election, the bipartisan potential that soil-C solutions hold to get climate legislation moving is more important than ever.

A short summary of all the efforts I know of, voluntary markets , methodologies, sponsors & activities around Soil-C;
by Michael J. Coren
Betting on the Farm: Can Soil Carbon Cut Emissions and Improve the World’s Farmlands?
Soil carbon credits offer the promise of better land management across millions of hectares of farmland, and they are a central focus of the International Conference on Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change taking place this week in the Hague. But how does it work, and can carbon markets make it a reality?

Comment by Erich J. Knight on January 1, 2011 11:52 pm

Conservation Agricultural…………from FAO:
“In general, soil carbon sequestration during the first decade of adoption of best conservation agricultural practices is 1.8 tons CO2 per hectare per year. On 5 billion hectares of agricultural land, this could represent one-third of the current annual global emission of CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels (i.e., 27 Pg CO2 per year).”

Add just 1 Ton more of char/Ha (800lb/Ac) and you cover 100% Current Annual Fossil CO2 Emissions.

Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Potential of Agricultural Land Management in the United States: A Synthesis of the Literature
This document is a companion report to the upcoming T-AGG reports. It is an extensive scientific literature review providing a side-by-side comparison of the biophysical greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation potential of more than 40 agricultural land management activities in the United States.

Comment by Erich J. Knight on January 1, 2011 11:55 pm

Whole systems solutions based on building soil carbon take a while to filter through one’s mind to see the manifold benefits. The “Eyes Glaze Over” microbial complexity, labile verses recalcitrant carbon, Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC) etc, all conspire to slow peoples comprehension .

Once thought through however, the elemental carbon nature of biochar understood, soil’s reduced GHG emissions and the local economic stimulus perceived, then can be added that beyond rectifying the Carbon Cycle, biochar systems serve the same healing function for the Nitrogen & Phosphorous Cycles, Toxicity in Soils & Sediments and cut the carbon foot print of livestock by 1/2 with a 5%Char feed ration.

The production of fossil fuel free ammonia & char (SynGest, ) and the 52% conservation of NH3 in composting with chars, are just the newest pathways for the highest value use of the fractionation of biomass.

The Soil Carbon Standard committee’s work with USDA, EPA and Congressional Ag committees offers real hope, with expansion to ISO status, the world can all be on the same soil carbon page.

Erich J. Knight
Chairman; Markets and Business Review Committee
US BiocharConference, at Iowa State University, June 27-30

Comment by Erich J. Knight on January 1, 2011 11:57 pm

After our meeting in Atlanta many years ago, despite hearing the concerns of forest protection groups, SACE embarked on it’s path to undermine forest protection efforts in the Southeast. SACE now has to much funding and staff invested in looking at the biomass energy issue from a realistic perspective.

For example, the TVA IRP is proposing another 460 MW of biomass power in it’s 20 year plan. To accomplish this will require the equivalent of 6,000,000 acres of the 14,000,000 acres of forests in the Tennessee Valley. This 460 MW will only provide 1/80th of current demand and barely scratch the 8-16,000 MW increase in demand during the period. Considerable environmental impacts, and a carbon bomb of forest biomass to boot.

Nearly every biomass scheme that is now popping up heads directly for the wood for the cheapest, most readily available feedstock. Whole tree chipping is becoming more and more common, making clearcuts not only more numerous, but highly unsustainable for site nutrient cycling. Soil carbon, stored for generations, will be released with SACE sanctioned deforestation schemes. The scheme to cut down yet more forests to “char” soils is laughable. Maintaining and expanding forest cover would do far more to mitigate GHG emissions in both the short and long term.

Your biomass schemes are not green, nor carbon neutral, nor clean energy by any stretch of the imagination. Your “smart cities” ploy does not take into account an underinformed, and propagandized citizenry on issues like this.

Comment by Denny Haldeman on January 3, 2011 4:22 pm

Bio-mess electricity is “controversial” because it is, in fact, neither clean nor green, nor sustainable. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that burning trees and garbage in incinerators is not worth our “clean energy” money.

When Americans do manage to wade through the bio-mess corporado greenwash that calls biomass burning “clean” energy, they quickly see that there is a huge scam going on here. And, its all about your taxpayer and ratepayer money being used to subsidize huge corporations like Duke, AREVA, ADAGE, American Renewables, and others who are building CO2 spewing monstrosities across the nation.

The pocketbooks of these fat cats and their lawyers, media strategists and bought and sold politicians are at first no match for the uninformed masses. But when the Tea Party finds out about this, watch out bio-masters.

Comment by Aspen DuBois on January 3, 2011 4:35 pm

Comment by Aspen DuBois on January 3, 2011 4:44 pm

Now put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Comment by Aspen DuBois on January 4, 2011 3:40 pm

Dear Denny Haldeman and Aspen DuBois,

The climate crisis is frightening enough without such alarmism and sarcasm.

A scientific analysis of biomass resource has less to do with acres and more to do with forest inventory, how much wood is growing on the land, how quickly it grows, and what is already being harvested for more valuable purposes.

Recently, SACE sought independent scientific support to answer these questions for TN. We then analyzed the feasible biomass supplies in the Tennessee Valley in order to give more informed feedback to TVA’s Integrated Resource Planning process. This analysis was very conservative and cautious about the environment and sustainability. It assumed no use of questionable biomass resources, no old-growth tracts and no public lands.

We found that TVA’s goals for biopower are much lower than can be sustainably supplied by Tennessee Valley forests, farms, urban wood-waste, animal manure, and other diverse biomass sources. We found that in-Valley biomass supplies could feasibly fuel between 1,100 and 4,000 MW of biopower capacity. Compare this to the 456MW that TVA proposed in their IRP, and you see they continue to rely too heavily on coal and nuclear, underestimating the potential of biopower, wind and solar.

We have enough challenges responding to the misdirections of those who would deny the serious threat of global warming. So when expressing concerns about the technology solutions being considered, it would be more productive to avoid such misleading descriptions. No one is proposing to build incinerators: I’ve seen incinerators, and comparing them to modern biopower facilities is like comparing a DispozAll to a CuisinArt.

It is crucial we get the science right. And in this case, the science says we need every tool available to fight climate change, including smart biomass energy.

We believe dialogue is constructive. Flooding this page with URLs or text cut&pasted from other sites? Not so much.
Thank you for engaging the dialogue constructively!

Comment by John Bonitz on January 4, 2011 6:14 pm

Dear SACE,

With “environmentalists” like you around, who needs the climate deniers and Tea Party? You’re doing their job for them.

“No one is proposing to build incinerators: I’ve seen incinerators, and comparing them to modern biopower facilities is like comparing a DispozAll to a CuisinArt.”

Ah, so they are going to feed forests to a Cuisinart instead of a Dispozall. I feel reassured already.

Seriously, I look forward to the day when the environmental groups stop falling for the corporate vs. public lands divide-and-conquer strategy. The Earth doesn’t care whether forests are owned by the public or a limited liability corporation. Grinding up second growth – or fourth growth – trees on “private” land is still a disaster.

If groups like SACE really thought that climate change was a concern, they would urge a moratorium on forest liquidation on all lands, one of the prerequisites for the eventual lowering of atmospheric carbon levels.

Comment by Aspen DuBois on January 4, 2011 8:21 pm

Oh, and by the way, have you bothered to look at the air pollution permits being given out by the states to these incinerators? The emissions are just as toxic and just as climate busting as coal or garbage burners.

A little dioxin, mercury, HAPs, PM 2.5, ozone, CO…anyone?

Wonder why the Massachusetts Medical Society opposes biomass incinerators on the grounds that they present an “unacceptable health risk”? Or are we supposed to ignore the fact that billions in ratepayer and taxpayer money is being used to build greenwashed incinerators that emit toxic air pollution that kills people?

No wonder the Tea Party is peeved at enviros for ripping off the working person.

Comment by Aspen DuBois on January 4, 2011 8:24 pm

Energy Justice Network, who opposes biomass incinerators, has a map of operating biomass facilities:


and a nice looking heat map:

Comment by Aaron Kreider on January 4, 2011 8:29 pm

John, Why are you so threatened by the Manomet report, the findings of the ALA and other groups that you must censor links and websites to protect your swallowers from other versions of the debate? This sort of censorship, at least a half dozen alternative views, is a rare occurance on other websites that profess to be willing to have an honest discussion. SACE is wrong on so many levels, unwilling to debate intellligently and honestly, and resorting to industry tactic provided for SACE comfort. I am more than willing to have this discussion in front of any forum of your choosing, at any time of your choosing. Name the date, time, and format. Let’s just agree that honesty is first and formost. Please..also include all the censored links on your website for the last few days so that your followers may be equally informed on both sides. Okay?

Comment by Denny Haldeman on January 4, 2011 9:19 pm

I find it refreshing and assuring that SACE is willing to debate in front of everyone in a public forum. I would hope that you are willing to quit censoring websites and comments in preparation of such a debate. It would seem that if SACE is comfortable in their position on this subject, that external links, alternative views, and science to the contraray would not constitute such a threat that such censorship for membership would not be necessary. I urge you to restores all censored posts of the past few days, allow your sponsors, supporters, and funders to have full disclosure on how at odds SACE is with groups involved with biodiversity, water, air, and sustainablity. Please restore the previous days’ dialogues and be willing to discuss this issue honestly. Ready when you are.

Comment by Denny Haldeman on January 4, 2011 9:58 pm

Dear Denny and Aspen,

We encourage and respect different points of view. Our many environmental challenges will only be solved through communication and collaboration. I hope we can find common ground rather than focus on our differences.

Unfortunately the spam filter on this blogsite grabs comments that have high numbers of URLs with little accompanying text. Also, I deleted comments that were large blocks of text cut and pasted from other websites.

For our readers on this blog, we strive to maintain a tone of civility and high level of informative content. If you would like to construct a thoughtful response to this blogpost, putting your favored URL links in context for our readers, that would be welcomed. I’ll make sure the spam filter doesn’t block it.

We at SACE are happy to publish serious, constructive and civil dialogue. Random lists of URLs do not make a constructive dialogue. Comments that include URLs without context are not helpful and will be blocked. Comments that are more inflammatory than thoughtful in nature are not welcomed and will be deleted.

Thank you.

Comment by John Bonitz on January 5, 2011 3:32 pm

Good overview and reasoned call for utilizing biomass wisely and cleanly. Biomass critics fail to appreciate that projects burn waste wood, thereby improving forest health and reducing the potential for dangerous methane emissions.

Comment by Dick Munson on January 6, 2011 2:25 pm

I’m curious what SACE thinks about Duke Energy’s plan to burn the equivalent of 2.2 million trees a year in a couple of its coal plants in NC and SC. Duke has made it clear that they’re not interested in burning “forest residues” and they’ve gotten the NC Utilities Commission to declare whole trees as an eligible biomass fuel. Here’s an except from their pre-trial testimony, which made it clear they considered residues to be dirty, green, diffuse, and hardly worth the bother:

Q: How would a limiting interpretation of the definition of “biomass resource” impact the company’s… compliance strategy and resource investment plans?

A: “Duke Energy Carolinas would be forced to significantly alter its… compliance strategy if the definition of “biomass resource” was interpreted as a matter of law to exclude all other wood fuel sources except “wood waste.” As illustrated by the testimony of Company Witness Steward, there is already limited “wood waste” supply in the marketplace, and such a limiting interpretation would create an artificial premium for that supply… there may simply not be enough “wood waste” fuel available to support the relative needs at Company-owned or third party sites.”

Southern Environmental Law Center has been litigating this issue.

My blog post on the use of whole trees as fuel in biomass power plants all over the country is here:

You’ve also represented the Manomet Study as having “very short” timelines for payback of the carbon debt from burning biomass. This is a blatant misrepresentation. If you want to see what the Manomet study really said, see my review at

When is SACE going to start being guided by the data and the science, instead of outdated dogma? Biomass isn’t carbon neutral or even remotely close to being “low carbon”. The Southeastern study that you cite as showing biomass is viable for that region actually assumed that wood from the pulp and paper industry could be repurposed as biomass fuel and that it would still be completely 100% without emissions. In fact, the vast majority of “available” biomass fuel in that study would come at the expense of the pulp and paper industry. Were you aware of that? Additionally, the study contained some actual mathematical errors. It’s good to read beyond the news releases on these kinds of studies, to understand the assumptions that lie behind them.

It’s clear that SACE has an agenda on this issue that refuses to respond to emerging science and modeling. Why is that?

Comment by Mary S. Booth on January 6, 2011 6:34 pm

John…That was an extraordinary cop-out to blame the “spam filter” for the SACE censorship in dialogue. Too many URLs? The SACE website is filled with them.

I know a dozen people who have tried to communicate with SACE on this issue, only to have their posts deleted in a methodical way. Mary Booth’s response to Bob Cleaves of BPA was most informative and telling in that most new biomass power producers rely solely on in-woods chippers, clearcuts, and have little interest in what SACE claims to be the primary source of feedstock.

I see little to be gained by SACE for continued censorship. You are only further distancing your organization from the reality-based environmental community by such actions and your funders will be duly informed about your anti-forests stance.

Comment by Denny Haldeman on January 6, 2011 11:56 pm

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