Is Biomass right for MA? The Climate Minute Podcast

Here in Massachusetts we consider ourselves leaders in the climate change movement. Notable among our many efforts on clean energy is the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA), started in 2008. One of the items in the GWSA is a mandate to get to a certain amount of clean energy by the year 2020. As part of that effort to get to the mandated amount of clean energy that we use in MA, an idea has come up to burn biomass—essentially wood—and put it into the “clean energy” category. According to an article in the Boston Globe, the Baker Administration is considering designating biomass for renewable energy and making biomass eligible for clean energy incentives, which is very controversial as you might imagine. The Baker Administration is saying that biomass is part of the so-called “combo platter” of energy that the state needs to rely on and that over time it should not increase carbon emissions. Climate hawks protest because burning biomass will create more pollution in the form of soot and also reduce the trees that are needed to absorb carbon dioxide. As D.R. says, looking at it from a 35,000 foot perspective, branding biomass to be renewable energy as though it is the equivalent of wind and solar reminds him of the famous Reagan initiative to brand ketchup as a vegetable. This is an opportunity to play semantics with what is considered “renewable” and “clean energy.”

There is some political history here: Maine’s governor Paul LePage made a plea to current Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker last year. Maine’s biomass energy industry and the forestry jobs that depended on it were struggling. When Deval Patrick was Governor of MA, he passed a law that only allowed biomass facilities that both create electricity and capture heat energy—called combined heat and power plants—to get the extra payments that are awarded for energy from renewable resources – aka renewable energy credits. The cheap prices of natural gas are driving down Maine’s biomass energy market but losing the Massachusetts renewable energy credits was an extra blow to the industry. Governor LePage and Governor Baker met in DC last year and reportedly LePage asked Baker to change the rules and allow the Maine biomass generators to again qualify for the renewable energy portfolio in MA. MA citizens that were part of the original law created by Deval Patrick said that, “only the combined heat and power biomass facilities are efficient enough to be considered renewable resources that do not add enough carbon dioxide to the atmosphere to contribute significantly to climate change.” Proponents for counting biomass as renewable energy say that the Maine plants already meet the basic greenhouse gas standards in the MA rule and that if biomass isn’t burned, it will rot and release carbon dioxide anyway; plus, if biomass is not burned as a fuel, that will cause Maine to burn more fossil fuels in their place.


But burning wood for fuel over fossil fuels is not exactly a panacea. There are serious public health issues with soot, or black carbon, produced from the combustion of fossil fuels, biofuels, and biomass—it produces tiny “fine” soot particles. There are three classes of particulates that are a public health concern—coarse, fine, and ultrafine. Soot makes up 5 to 10 % of the “fine” particulate matter in our atmosphere – fine particles are super small – ranging between 0.1 to 2.5 micrometers. Because they are so small they can bypass the body’s filtration systems and get lodged deep in your lungs, all the way down in the alveoli—the tiny airsacs at the end of your respiratory tree responsible for getting oxygen into your blood. Accumulation of fine particulates in your lungs can lead to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Annual deaths due to biofuel soot are 1.5 million/year, mostly in Asia and Africa, but with a tiny little portion of those in New England.

Mark Jacobson, Stanford University professor of Civil and Enviro Engineering, testified in a 2007 congressional hearing that black carbon in the soot particles created from burning fossil fuels and biomass is the second leading cause of global warming ahead of methane.  There are many reasons for this, but one interesting one is that they make white snow black—so they are particularly damaging to glaciers. You may hear people talking about the albedo effect—which is the whiteness of geological structures, such as glaciers, on the earth essentially. Whiteness reflects sunlight off of a surface and cools that surface – think of walking across a white painted surface vs. a black painted surface. Well, black soot particles will settle on white snow or sea ice and darken those surfaces warming and melting them. Jacobson asserts that controlling soot and methane may be the only methods of preventing loss of the Arctic sea ice and a tipping point to more rapid global warming. In fact, in his 2007 testimony, he shows data that indicate, “controlling soot could reduce temperatures faster than controlling carbon dioxide for up to 10 years, but controlling carbon dioxide has a larger overall climate benefit over 100 years.”


So there are all of these side issues of the biomass question that Governor Baker is wrestling with here to try to satisfy the GWSA. He is trying to figure out if there is a way to include biomass in the “combo platter” or “all of the above” approach to energy solutions. There are some distinctions in terminology to carry around. When we talk about renewable energy vs. clean energy…it seems to us that burning biomass is “renewable” because you can always grow another tree. But it is kind of “dirty” renewable energy because you are putting all of this carbon up into the air as opposed to running a solar panel where at least in the operation there is no carbon emitted. In an NPR report on this controversy, Charles Thompson of the Massachusetts Forest Alliance in Marlboro seized upon biomass as “the ultimate renewable fuel…it is abundant, local, growing far faster than it is being used. It is a diversified energy supply.” The problem is that we are trying to go for energy supplies that don’t pollute in any way. According to one of the last reports of the EPA before Scott Pruitt took over, MA has more pollution from wood combustion than any other state in New England. When you factor that in alongside the health impacts this becomes an environmental justice issue. If you are near where all of this wood is being burnt, you quite literally can’t breathe. Soot, dust, particulate from burning things falls out of the atmosphere in three weeks. So if you stop burning it, all of its global warming impact goes away rapidly. The other concept to have around biomass as a fuel source – you burn a piece of wood today, but you put carbon dioxide in the air, and then you grow another tree but it takes 30 years to grow before it can take up that carbon dioxide, and you have to have the follow through and discipline to plant more trees for the ones that you burn. It doesn’t seem like we are building that into the process, accepting the discipline to renew the renewable resource. The final concept that is useful to contemplate in this debate is the concept of new and old carbon. The carbon in the tree burned for biomass was in the atmosphere over the last hundred years. The tree grows, it captures the carbon from the air, then you chop the tree down and burn it. So at some level that is net neutral. And that is distinct from this idea of going and digging up fossilized carbon—that is to say trees that have died 65 million years ago—now you are digging them up and adding new carbon to the air. So these are two different sources of carbon in that the problem with fossil fuels is that you keep adding new carbon to the system. But we would make the argument that given the dire straights we are in, even burning wood, which in some sense is carbon neutral, is not good because you are putting short-term carbon into the air that you can avoid. 


Every process we do to create energy has “embedded energy” in it. For example, when you build a solar panel, you have to have electricity to run the machines that make the solar panel. “Embedded energy” refers to the amount of electricity you have to expend to build a solar panel. If you have too much embedded energy in your solar panel, well that is not great either! But the life cycle analysis for solar panels show that the highly efficient solar panels of today completely offset their embedded energy with the amount of electricity they can generate—and they are significantly better than burning biomass or biofuels.


Back to the idea that MA is considering burning biomass, it is not a simple decision and raises many legitimate questions. We ask our listeners: what do you think? Is burning biomass a renewable resource? Should Governor Baker permit this as part of his goal to honor the Paris Agreement in Massachusetts?


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