Electricity from Forest Biomass: An Industry gone Amok.

— John Sollows

On the night of November 14, TREPA screened the movie “Burned,” about the fallacies behind the American forest biomass-fuelled electricity industry. The screening was accompanied by a shorter movie on Nova Scotia’s situation, and commentary by Raymond Plourde of the Ecology Action Centre.
Nova Scotia forestry policy needs to prioritize sustainability more. We understand the need to inflict minimal socioeconomic pain, but decision-makers need to balance this against the price that future generations will pay for overenthusiastic harvesting.
The use of forest biomass for large-scale electricity has become part of the problem. Use of mill-generated “waste” wood to heat mill facilities makes sense. Cutting forests to provide electricity across the province is a different story.
Biomass-fuelled electricity is considered “renewable” by many, because after a tree is cut down, another tree normally grows in its place. So the greenhouse gases that get released by the burning of a tree are expected to get absorbed by other trees growing in place of the burned one.
There’s one problem: All those trees get turned into greenhouse gases a lot faster than the replacement trees can absorb the gases. Put it this way: How long does it take to cut down and process an acre of trees? Now, how long does it take for that acre to grow trees back to the size that was harvested?
We are burning trees faster than they can be replaced. Calling this energy “renewable” is an enormous stretch of the imagination. Calling it sustainable is false.
I now understand the claims that biomass-generated electricity generates more greenhouse gases than coal. Electricity is a form of energy, and the amount of energy produced depends on the amount of heat produced by the fuel. Quite a few of us still can affirm that a ton of coal produces a lot more heat than a ton of wood, even hardwood. So a unit of electricity needs a greater weight of wood to be burned, than of coal. Add to that that the wood burned is often wet and that a lot of electric energy gets lost travelling long distances over power lines. It ends up being a pretty inefficient system
Waste wood produced on a mill site is a legitimate fuel. “Waste wood” sitting in a forest is not; neither is it “waste.” Trees that aren’t fit for the mills still absorb greenhouse gases, prevent erosion and runoff, provide habitat and food for many other forms of life, and on death, become soil, which again holds a lot of nutrients, carbon and water for a very long time. They are not wasted, either before or after death. The problem is that the economic value of the services they provide us are not conveniently measurable. They still matter, big-time, and we ignore them at our peril.
For instance, where does your water come from? There’s a good chance you can thank a forest for its dependability, its quantity and its purity, because forests are among our most important and efficient stabilizers and purifiers of water. Climate change scientists forecast hotter, drier summers and warmer, wetter winters. We’re going to need all the help we can get to store the water that we’ll get the wet half of the year. In the absence of extensive forests, we’ll be in trouble.
We’ll be in additional trouble on the water quality front. Hotter, drier summers tend to make for warmer, clearer water. That makes lakes vulnerable to blue-green algal blooms, especially when there is not enough surrounding vegetation to absorb the nutrients these blooms need. We are discovering that too often, the wee cells in these blooms produce extremely nasty toxins, which can lead to serious public health issues. We’re going to hear a lot more related stories in coming years, unfortunately.
Ecologists are scientists, not special interest lobbyists. The most important aspect of their work is to give the rest of us early warnings of where our current behaviour is leading. We’d better listen. It may not be possible to reverse current forestry practices overnight, but the process needs to start, yesterday. Dialling back the use of forest biomass to generate electricity would be a good beginning.

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