Food and Technology Blog

Burning trees to save the planet?

Posted Jun. 18, 2012 / Posted by: Michal Rosenoer

Politicians and industry folks have been arguing for years that the best way to transition away from petroleum-based fuels and save the world from climate doom is to use biomass for electricity and to run our cars. That is, burn our food and forests for energy.

Think about that for a minute...does burning our forests to save the planet even make sense? It seems like an easy "no." Unfortunately, according to a 2011 report, there are already 250 biomass refineries operating in the U.S., with approximately 230 more plants proposed. 

Dr. Ellen Moyer, an independent environmental consultant, wrote a great article on the problems with using biomass for electricity featured in The Huffington Post's Green blog today. Below are some of my favorite excerpts, but make sure to check out the full article today:

"Wood-burning electrical power plants, or "biomass plants," as explained below, are not clean, green, or renewable. If the U.S. national park system is "America's Best Idea," as Ken Burns says, then biomass plants are America's worst idea. Biomass plants devour many things of great value -- trees, wildlife habitat, soil fertility, water, petroleum, and money, and produce a multitude of damaging byproducts -- greenhouse gases, other air pollutants, water pollution, ash, adverse health impacts, and economic damage. It would be a challenge to design a more damaging activity if one tried. However, recognition of the devastating effects has been slow to take hold, because the term "biomass plant" sounds "green" and due to our obsessive-compulsive desire for more energy that does not involve fossil fuels, at any cost.

Of all the available combustion-based electricity generation technologies, biomass plants are the least efficient, converting to electricity only 20 to 25 percent of the energy in the wood. Some of the remaining energy is used to vaporize the water in the wood, and the rest is often discharged to the atmosphere using humongous quantities of river water for cooling. A typical 50 megawatt plant requires 800,000 gallons per day of fresh water, vaporizing 85 percent and returning 15 percent to the river heated and contaminated.

Because of their supreme inefficiency, gargantuan quantities of fuel are required. If all the trees in the U.S. were burned for biomass energy, it would meet our national energy needs for only one year. A typical 50 megawatt biomass plant burns 1.2 tons of wood each minute. The impacts on forests, and the wildlife that depend on them, are devastating. In addition, when trees are mined from the forest, soil nutrients are removed rather than recycled. Nutrient depletion thus renders the process of biomass production for energy unsustainable.

Also due to their inefficiency, for each unit of electricity generated, biomass plants emit more carbon dioxide than any other energy source, for example, about 1.5 times that of coal for each unit of electricity generated. This reality is often countered by arguments based on a conceptual error made early on that took on a life of its own and has been difficult to eradicate, much like how the belief that the sun revolved around the earth was tenaciously held and only released with great difficulty. This is the notion that burning wood is "carbon neutral," that the carbon emitted during combustion is reabsorbed by growing trees. What was not considered is the mismatch in rates -- while it takes a minute to burn a tree in a biomass plant, it takes decades to grow a tree back. Oops!" (Emphasis added).

Fortunately, people like Dr. Moyer are getting the news out about the dangers of biomass. Recently, Massachusetts also took the lead in producing first-of-its-kind regulations for biomass, requiring that efficiency and forest protection standards be met for a biomass plant to receive taxpayer subsidies. These regulations are the culmination of years of grassroots advocacy and citizen action in Massachusetts. To support the regulations, send an email today to the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources at and tell them you support only truly sustainable biomass-based energy, accompanied by the strongest regulations possible.

Like using biomass for electricity, using biomass to produce transportation fuels (biofuels) can also be an extremely dirty and polluting process. Check out our fact sheet on the problems with corn ethanol and our advocacy on polluting biofuels to learn more.

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