New Hampshire

Valley News – Column: Biomass energy is sustainable and needed

Published: 13.11.2022 22:00:11

Modified: 2022-11-13 22:00:13

Andrew Friedland’s October 16 comment (“Wood-fired energy won’t help”) recommends that we reduce our reliance on electricity produced by burning woody biomass. The situation is indeed nuanced and not as clear cut as my Dartmouth colleague suggests.

Consistent with Ben Steele’s observations in his October 22 reply to Andy’s comment, it is entirely possible that electricity from a managed forest is 100% carbon neutral. To achieve this, the net carbon dioxide absorbed by the unlogged portion of the forest must be equal to the carbon dioxide released by the portion of the forest that is logged and used for power generation. If desired, the proportion of unmanaged and managed forest can be adjusted so that carbon dioxide capture through photosynthesis not only compensates for carbon dioxide released at the point of generation, but also for supply chain emissions (e.g. from harvesting, transport and chipping of the biomass). .

However, most forests in the US are relatively young, and if left unharvested, they remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis than they return through decay. The controversy surrounding wood power is understandable. Proponents point to a potential for carbon neutrality comparable to solar or wind power, while critics claim that leaving the forest offers greater climate benefits than today’s wood-to-power plants. You are both right.

Forests can be viewed as a resource from which carbon neutral energy can be sustainably produced, and can also be viewed as a resource that removes atmospheric carbon dioxide, thereby partially offsetting emissions elsewhere in the economy. Given the importance of climate stabilization, it is important to consider additional factors when evaluating these ‘working forest’ and ‘conservation forest’ models. The collapse of the New England paper industry devastated the lives of generations of families and businesses large and small who sought a living in the woods. Also, providing a market for low-quality timber compensates for the preferential removal of high-value species, improving both habitat diversity and economic value.

To get an overview of these issues, I called the Society for Protection of New Hampshire Forests and spoke to Public Policy Director Matt Leahy. He explained that the SPNF carries out and informs forest management works aimed at several goals, including improving wildlife habitat, plant biodiversity, recreation and forest management. “We have supported wood-to-energy projects and continue to do so,” he said. He pointed out that the harvesting of low-grade wood for biomass energy plants is generally done in conjunction and synergy with harvesting or stand improvement activities that encourage the production of lumber for construction and furniture manufacturing – activities that no one is suggesting to us to stop , and which lead to carbon storage. Therefore, without markets for low-quality timber, there will be less stock improvement and our forests will be less economically valuable and have less habitat diversity. Leahy noted that the Society for Protection of New Hampshire Forests would object to New Hampshire forests being overexploited to their detriment. On site, however, this is no longer the case today.

Andy notes in his comment that wood-fired electricity does not fall into the same category as wind, solar and hydro. Most experts would agree, but rather than liabilities due to the pronounced climate benefits of energy from biomass. The average of 85 scenarios leading to a 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) rise in global temperature, recently compiled by the International Panel on Climate Change, has more primary energy from biomass than wind and solar energy in 2050 sun together. This is because: 1) it is widely believed that the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is required for climate stabilization; 2) Concentrating carbon dioxide from the air is very expensive, actually more expensive than transporting and storing carbon dioxide; and 3) the conversion of biomass into electricity or fuels produces concentrated carbon dioxide as a by-product. The majority of climate stabilization scenarios and the experts and organizations who create them assume that carbon dioxide removal is necessary to stabilize the climate and that energy from biomass has an important and distinctive role.

My colleague Erin Mayfield, speaking on the influential Net Zero America project, notes that “in many alternative pathways to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, biomass plays an integral role, with use often increasing to resource limits when.” we minimize costs.” The main reason for this is that energy from biomass has the potential to be carbon negative, while energy from most other renewable sources is carbon neutral at best.

New England’s wood-fired power plants do not capture or store carbon dioxide emitted from chimneys, largely because there are no policies that provide an economic reward for doing so. It is also true that forests are not the only source of biomass that can be used for energy and there are forms of energy other than electricity that can be produced from biomass. We need to think about how we manage forests and land, and we need to recognize the possibility and risks of mismanagement. However, doing without energy from biomass does not correspond to the central consensus of climate stabilization experts.

Lee Lynd lives in Meriden and is the Paul and Joan Queneau Distinguished Professor of Engineering at Dartmouth. He has been involved in activities related to sustainable biomass energy production involving research, policy and entrepreneurship for 40 years.

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