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The Woody-Biomass Two-Step
By Barbara Coyner
As new woody biomass plants are proposed, here’s how the scenario frequently unfolds: a company develops a plan for a woody biomass facility, choosing a location, nailing down a promising site, and envisioning a potential source for fuel. Then the company submits applications for air quality permits and other necessary requirements. The proposal is floated to the public. Some like the idea, others do not. This is where many projects often stall out.
Such might be the case at Lakeview, Ore., where energy company Iberdrola has proposed a woody biomass facility. As of December 2013, Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality had tentatively given a green light for Iberdrola to move forward. However, some townspeople and environmental organizations have said, “Not so fast. There is already an air pollution problem here.”
Ideas vs. Activism
Sorting out good ideas from plain old activism is increasingly more difficult, sometimes thanks to the bully pulpit afforded by the Internet. Looking back over the Lakeview project, it is obvious that the plan was announced over three years ago with much fanfare. Internet searches yield both pro and con positions from the start, most often due to already existing air pollution troubles caused by woodstoves in the area.
Project proponents point out that the stacks at a woody biomass plant are taller and therefore disperse potentially harmful particulates higher into the atmosphere than the chimney from a typical woodstove. Point well taken. Already existing biomass plants also frequently have to explain that what is generally coming out of their stacks is mostly steam, not a deadly cocktail of pollutants.
With all the science out there and sophisticated instruments to measure pollution, why is it so difficult to decide on the health and safety aspects of woody biomass plants? Let’s look closer at the subject through various sites on the Internet. Here’s an interesting beginning point, taken from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) site http://www.nrdc.org/energy/renewables/biomass.asp (Reading the whole site gives the organization’s broader approach):
Granted, the above quote is cherry picked from the entire NRDC website, and the group certainly doesn’t promote the harvest of whole green trees for biomass energy. In the broader context, however, NRDC seems somewhat open to woody biomass energy and the use of forest residues in energy production.
The Other Side
By contrast, however, here is the perspective from another group called Energy Justice (http://www.energyjustice.net/biomass).
Representatives for that organization have weighed in often against the Lakeview project, as well as a similar project at Klamath Falls, Ore. Here is a sampling of the group’s attitude toward woody biomass:
Biomass incineration is one of the most expensive, inefficient and polluting ways to make energy — even dirtier than coal in some ways. Forests are destroyed, the climate is cooked, crop lands are wasted, resources are destroyed and low-income communities and communities of color suffer increased health problems from this unnecessary dirty energy source that poses as renewable energy… Burning “green” biomass (trees or crops), while quite polluting, is often a foot in the door for even more toxic and profitable waste streams like trash and tires…Biomass is dirtier than most fossil fuels, but is considered renewable, competing for subsidies with true renewables like wind and solar. As we move away from coal, biomass is increasingly being sought out as an alternative (even chipping our forests to ship to Europe for burning), thanks to misguided renewable energy and climate policies that fail to recognize that biomass is worse than coal for the climate.
Further trolling around the Internet reveals some amount of science on the actual numbers of various particulates and polluting emissions, but the two examples listed above show just how widely attitudes differ on woody biomass, even within green communities. It is no secret that some organizations draw funding from activists who are merely opinionated, while other green groups employ scientists to help develop policy. For those who want a sample of a scientific appraisal on woody biomass particulates, check out a World Health Organization site: http://www.who.int/indoorair/interventions/antiguamod21.pdf.
As logging contractors and mills inquire about the opportunities with woody biomass, it’s good to remember that “barking up the wrong tree” can be costly to the industry. Woody biomass power seems prudent, but activism against it also exists.
We need facts and good examples. Living for over 25 years near the woody biomass plant at the University of Idaho, I am one of those with little fear of its health impacts. I am also well aware of the anti-logging activism that sometimes comes out of the very same campus that is 90 percent heated with wood!
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