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Up in Smoke

Why Biomass Wood Energy is Not the Answer

By George Wuerthner | January 12, 2010

After the Smurfit-Stone Container Corp.’s linerboard plant in Missoula Montana announced that it was closing permanently, there have been many people including Montana Governor Switzer, Missoula mayor and Senator Jon Tester, among others who advocate turning the mill into a biomass energy plant. Northwestern Energy, a company which has expressed interest in using the plant for energy production has already indicated that it would expect more wood from national forests to make the plant economically viable.

The Smurfit Stone conversion to biomass is not alone. There have been a spate of new proposals for new wood burning biomass energy plants sprouting across the country like mushrooms after a rain. Currently there are plans and/or proposals for new biomass power plants in Maine, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Florida, California, Idaho, Oregon and elsewhere. In every instance, these plants are being promoted as “green” technology.

Part of the reason for this “boom” is that taxpayers are providing substantial financial incentives, including tax breaks, government grants, and loan guarantees. The rationale for these taxpayer subsidies is the presumption that biomass is “green” energy. But like other “quick fixes” there has been very little serious scrutiny of  real costs and environmental impacts of biomass. Whether commercial biomass is a viable alternative to traditional fossil fuels can be questioned.

Before I get into this discussion, I want to state right up front, that coal and other fossil fuels that now provide much of our electrical energy need to be reduced and effectively replaced. But biomass energy is not the way to accomplish this end goal.


First and foremost, biomass burning isn’t green. Burning wood produces huge amounts of pollution. Especially in valleys like Missoula where temperature inversions are common, pollution from a biomass burner will be the source of numerous health ailments. Because of the air pollution and human health concerns, the Oregon Chapter of the American Lung Association, the Massachusetts Medical Society and the Florida Medical Association, have all established policies opposing large-scale biomass plants.

The reason for this medical concern is that even with the best pollution control devises, biomass energy is extremely dirty. For instance, one of the biggest biomass burners now in operation, the McNeil biomass plant in Burlington, Vermont is the number one pollution source in the state, emitting 79 classified pollutants. Biomass releases dioxins, and as much particulates as coal burning, plus carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and contributes to ozone formation. […]


Wood is not nearly as concentrated a heat source as coal, gas, oil, or any other fossil fuel. Most biomass energy operations are only able to capture 20-25% of the latent energy by burning wood. That means one needs to gather and burn more wood to get the same energy value as a more concentrated fuel like coal. That is not to suggest that coal is a good alternative, rather wood is a worse alternative. Especially when you consider the energy used to gather the rather dispersed source of wood and the energy costs of trucking it to a central energy plant. If the entire carbon footprint of wood is considered, biomass creates far more CO2 with far less energy output than other energy sources.

The McNeil Biomass Plant in Burlington Vermont seldom runs full time because wood, even with all the subsidies (and Vermonters made huge and repeated subsidies to the plant—not counting the “hidden subsidies” like air pollution) wood energy can’t compete with other energy sources, even in the Northeast where energy costs are among the highest in the nation. Even though the plant was also retrofitted so it could burn natural gas to increase its competitiveness with other energy sources, the plant still does not operate competitively. It generally is only used to off- set peak energy loads.

One could argue, of course, that other energy sources like coal are greatly subsidized as well, especially if all environmental costs were considered. But at the very least, all energy sources must be “standardized” so that consumers can make informed decisions about energy—and biomass energy appears to be no more green than other energy sources.


The dispersed nature of wood as a fuel source combined with its low energy value means any sizable energy plant must burn a lot of wood. For instance, the McNeil 50 megawatt biomass plant in Burlington, Vermont would require roughly 32,500 acres of forest each year if running at near full capacity and entirely on wood. Wood for the McNeil Plant is trucked and even shipped on trains from as far away as Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Quebec and Maine.

Biomass proponents often suggest that wood [gathered] as a consequence of forest thinning to improve “forest health” (logging a forest to improve health of a forest ecosystem is an oxymoron) will provide the fuel for plant operations. For instance, one of the assumptions of Senator Tester’s Montana Forest Jobs bill is that thinned forests will provide a ready source of biomass for energy production. But in many cases, there are limits on the economic viability of trucking wood any distance to a central energy plant. Again without huge subsidies, this simply does not make economic sense. Biomass forest harvesting is even worse for forest ecosystems than clear-cutting. Biomass energy tends to utilize the entire tree, including the bole, crown, and branches. This robs a forest of nutrients, and disrupts energy cycles.

Worse yet, such biomass removal ignores the important role of dead trees to sustain the forest ecosystems. Dead trees are not a “wasted” resource. They provide home and food for thousands of species, including 45% of all bird species in the Nation. Dead trees that fall to the ground are used by insects, small mammals, amphibians and reptiles for shelter and even potentially food. Dead trees that fall into streams are important physical components of aquatic ecosystems and provide critical habitat for many fish and other aquatic species. Removal of dead wood is mining the forest. Keep in mind that logging activities are not benign. Logging typically requires some kind of access, often roads which are a major source of sedimentation in streams, and disrupt natural subsurface water flow. Logging can disturb sensitive wildlife like grizzly bear and even elk are known to abandon locations with active logging. Logging can spread weeds. And finally since large amounts of forest carbon are actually tied up in the soils, soil disturbance from logging is especially damaging, often releasing substantial additional amounts of carbon over and above what is released up a smoke stack.


A large-scale biomass plant (50 MW) uses close to a million gallons of water a day for cooling. Most of that water is lost from the watershed since approximately 85% is lost as steam. Water channeled back into a river or stream typically has a pollution cost as well, including higher water temperatures that negatively impact fisheries, especially trout. Since cooling need is greatest in warm weather, removal of water from rivers occurs just when flows are lowest, and fish are most susceptible to temperature stress.


Since biomass energy is eligible for state renewable portfolio standards (RPS), it has captured the bulk of funding intended to move the country away from fossil fuels. For example, in Vermont, 90% of the RPS is from “smokestack” sources—mostly biomass incineration. This pattern holds throughout many other parts of the country. Biomass energy is thus burning up funds that could and should be going into other energy programs like energy conservation, solar and insulation of buildings.


Many of the climate bills now circulating in Congress, as well as Montana Senator Jon Tester’s Montana Jobs and Wilderness bill target public forests. Some of these proposals even include roadless lands and proposed wilderness as a source for wood biomass. One federal study suggests that 368 million tons of wood could be removed from our national forests every year—of course this study did not include the ecological costs that physical removal of this much would have on forest ecosystems.

The Biomass Crop Assistance Program, or BCAP, which was quietly put into the 2008 farm bill has so far given away more than a half billion dollars in a matching payment program for businesses that cut and collect biomass from national forests and Bureau of Land Management lands. And according to a recent Washington Post story, the Obama administration has already sent $23 million to biomass energy companies, and is poised to send another half billion.

And it is not only federal forests that are in jeopardy. Many states are eying their own state forests for biomass energy. For instance, Maine recently unveiled a new plan known as the Great Maine Forest Initiative which will pay timber companies to grow trees for biomass energy.


Ironically one of the main justifications for biomass energy is the creation of jobs, yet the wood biomass rush is having unintended consequences for other forest products industries. Companies that rely upon surplus wood chips to produce fiberboard, cabinet makers, and furniture are scrambling to find wood fiber for their products. Considering that these industries are secondary producers of products, the biomass rush could threaten more jobs than it may create.


Large scale wood biomass energy is neither green, nor truly economical. It is also not ecologically sustainable and jeopardizes our forest ecosystems. It is a distraction that funnels funds and attention away from other more truly worthwhile energy options, in particular, the need for a massive energy conservation program, and changes in our lifestyles that will in the end provide truly green alternatives to coal and other fossil fuels.

George Wuerthner is a wildlife biologist and a former Montana hunting guide. His latest book is Plundering Appalachia.


January 12, 2010 - Posted by | Environmentalism, Malthusian Ideology, Phony Scarcity | , , , , ,




    Pingback by Up in Smoke – Why Biomass Wood Energy is Not the Answer » | January 12, 2010

  2. It is one thing to use wood biomass for energy from regular timber mill waste, wood that has already been trucked to a central location and must be gotten rid of by some means anyway. It is quite another thing to cut down trees exclusively for burning. I have yet to see a study of the Energy Return on Energy Invested for wood biomass, but I suspect it isn’t any better than for ethanol from corn, which can actually have a negative EROEI.

    There were thousands of years of civilization before fossil fuels came into common usage when wood was the only energy source for everything: heating, cooking, smelting and shaping metals, glass making. The results of that are historical fact, the devastation of forests from Mesopotamia to Britain. Pray that we do not return to using our forests like that ever again. If we do, the current global population could desertify the entire planet in short order.

    But I do live in a wildfire region of Oregon, and I recognize that a high percentage of the wood biomass in the mountains around me will, in fact, eventually burn as it has been for millions of years. Native Americans used fire intelligently to cleanse the land on a regular schedule to prevent fuels from building up to catastrophic levels. The last century of unquestioned fire suppression has been a disaster and will be very difficult to correct. The down-dead fuel is out there and needs to be burned in a controlled fashion or it takes the whole forest with it, as it often is these days.

    One thing that surprises me about the wood biomass energy debate is that no one else seems to have thought of taking the electricity generators to the wood instead of taking the wood to the generator. Electrons are a lot lighter and cheaper to ship than wood, and the ashes could then be scattered directly back into the forest soils they came from. Put the generator on a self-propelled tracked vehicle that feeds its own boilers, and run a temporary powerline umbilical cord back to the nearest permanent electric grid.


    Comment by Tom | January 12, 2010

    • Tom,

      We lose a third of electric power in transmission. The farther you transmit the more you lose. That’s why it’s more economical to ship coal by the train load to the power generating station than to simply place generating stations at the coal sources.


      Comment by aletho | January 13, 2010

    • I realize that that power is lost in transmission, but the amount varies by distance and the voltage it is shipped at (hence the extremely high voltage in long-distance transmission.) Most of my electricity in SW Oregon comes from coal-fired plants in Wyoming, where the plants are built as close to the coal fields as possible so they can ship those light-weight electrons instead of the coal. I’m sure some very good electrical engineers have run all the numbers on this, and if it was more efficient to ship the coal than the electricity there would be a generating plant somewhere within a hundred miles of me. Because there’s a huge efficiency loss in extracting the energy from the coal to turn it into electricity, there’s no point in shipping coal great distances only to absorb that loss somewhere else unless you absolutely must. Hence the coalfield plants in Wyoming.


      Comment by Tom | January 13, 2010

      • “I’m sure some very good electrical engineers have run all the numbers on this, and if it was more efficient to ship the coal than the electricity there would be a generating plant somewhere within a hundred miles of me.”

        Or, another explanation is that energy market manipulators have corrupted the system and gotten you to pay for the massive inefficiency of long distance electrical transmission.

        A brief review of the facts supports this contention:

        High voltage transmission has been around for quite some time but was never utilized in place of rail transport until the Enrons of the industry became politically dominant and forced through all of their agenda for the creation of “market driven” electricity pricing.

        Rail transport of coal is actually quite inexpensive as is the transport by pipe of natural gas.

        The way the system has been re-designed, utilities only pay for power that they draw from the transmission line at a price which completely fails to account for the power lost in transmission. This arrangement is ideal for the Enrons of the industry but has proven to fail serving the interests of consumers. Rates certainly have not come down.


        Comment by aletho | January 13, 2010

  3. Wood-based biomass works, but is ecologically detrimental. Biomass does cause “pollution”… at least a plant designed solely for biomass burning.

    A biomass based on an easily grown plant with the possibility of multiple crops per year is much more suited over wood. Plants like hemp have enough uses such as textiles, paper, and seed oil, and enough of a crop to actually be coupled with a biomass facility that would be taking vast amounts of chemical feedstock from a process, as well as generating a carbon-neutral (carbon-negative if products as well as enery are considered) energy supply.

    Trading years of wood for days of energy is wrong.


    Comment by Mike | January 13, 2010

  4. Mike,

    Outside of the moral problems associated with dedicating arable land to energy production, the problem with growing hemp for energy comes down to mining the soil. Read all about it at:


    Comment by aletho | January 13, 2010

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