Why biomass wood energy is not the answer.

Author:Wuerthner, George
 
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Since 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 John Engen, and Senator Jon Tester, 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 has been a spate of 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 biomass's real costs and environmental impacts. 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.

Biomass burning is pollution

First and foremost, biomass burning isn't green. Burning wood produces huge amounts of pollution. Especially in valleys like Missoula's, 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 devices, 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...

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