Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Burning Wood to Make Electricity: Bad for Forests, the Climate, Ratepayers, and Taxpayers

Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt (Figure 1) has elevated ethical lapses into an art form and they just keep on comingwith at least a dozen federal investigations ongoing. The EPA head apparently believes that the laws of ethics do not apply to him.

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Figure 1. The Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Scott Pruitt. Notice the odd lapel pin "flag." Source: Eric Vance, US EPA.

More scandalous for Earth and its climate as we have known it is that Pruitt doesn’t think the laws of physics apply to energy generated from the burning of wood from forests. The EPA administrator has granted a long wish of Big Timber and declared that biomass energy is carbon neutral. Such a determination will increase government subsidies for a form of energy production that pumps more carbon per kilowatt-hour into the air than coal-fired electricity.

The Physics of Burning Forests

Denying the reality of biomass energy and carbon emissions is not limited to Pruitt. Congress directed the secretaries of energy and agriculture, along with the EPA administrator, to jointly “reflect the carbon neutrality of forest bioenergy and recognize biomass as a renewable energy source.” Sixty-five research scientists and practitioners with expertise in energy, forests, wetlands, and climate change earlier wrote Congress saying, “Legislating scientific facts is never a good idea, but is especially bad when the ‘facts’ are incorrect.”

Defense lawyer, diplomat, founding father, and second president of the United States John Adams (1735–1826) noted in 1770 that“facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

The fact is that biomass energy from forests is bad for both the climate and the forests. Distinguished Oregon State University forest scientists Beverly Law and Mark Harmon, along with William Moomaw of Tufts University, presented their “Statement on Forest Bioenergy Emissions” to an Oregon government commission on climate change. The statement is brief, eloquent, and compelling and is well worth the read. In their statement, Law, Harmon, and Moomaw note that “wood fueled electricity generation typically releases 50% more carbon dioxide than does coal per unit of electricity.”

It’s not just atmospheric carbon pollution. Mary S. Booth of the Partnership for Policy Integrity reports the following in a first-ever detailed analysis of the bioenergy industry published in April 2014:

Comparison of permits from modern coal, biomass, and gas plants shows that even the “cleanest” biomass plants can emit > 150% the nitrogen oxides, > 600% the volatile organic compounds, > 190% the particulate matter, and > 125% the carbon monoxide of a coal plant per megawatt-hour, although coal produces more sulfur dioxide (SO2). Emissions from a biomass plant exceed those from a natural gas plant by more than 800% for every major pollutant.

Making electricity by burning wood from forests is worse for the atmosphere than making it by burning coal. Superficially, one might think that making energy from biomass would be good for the climate, but one would be wrong. It’s all about the timing. “Burning trees for electricity generation immediately releases the carbon they contain into the atmosphere, and it takes decades to centuries for it to be removed by natural processes,” say Law, Harmon, and Moomaw. The problem of excess carbon in the atmosphere today is not solved by having less carbon in the atmosphere in the future. The scientists continue:

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions over the next decades is about keeping carbon stored in the forests and soils. It is incorrect to claim that regrowing forests will pay back the carbon debt because forests are decades to centuries old when they are cut, and it will take at least that much time to gain back the carbon they lost to the atmosphere when burned for energy. Furthermore, there is the even slower process of restoring the loss of centuries old soil organic carbon from harvest disturbance. Young trees grow faster than old trees, but it is the storage of carbon by forests and soils in the near term that is important for controlling the concentrations of CO2in the atmosphere, and hence global warming. The carbon is either in the atmosphere or it is in the forests and soils or in the ocean. Forests are a major solution to the carbon storage question.

To learn more about the physics of carbon and the burning of forests to produce energy, some relevant peer-reviewed scientific journal articles can be found in Environmental Research Letters (18 January 2018 and 25 April 2018), Science, and GCB Bioenergy.  offers an extensive list of peer-reviewed articles on this and other aspects of biomass energy.

For Biomass, Perverse Incentives and a Regulatory Pass

Despite the environmental harm being done, governments in North America and Europeare subsidizing biomass electricity production. In the United States, biomass electricity plants are being given a pass and need not comply with the same Clean Air Act standards as less carbon-intensive fuel sources such as coal and gas. Mary S. Booth, quoted from above, notes that “although biomass power plants emit more pollution than fossil fueled plants, biomass plants are given special treatment and are not held to the same emissions standards.”

Why would an administration that denies climate change and exalts fossil fuels want to favor biomass energy over fossil-fuel energy? Perhaps this administration actually just wants the atmosphere to be filled to the brim with carbon dioxide, from whatever source. More likely is that it is a payoff to Big Timber and pseudo–green energy companies seeking profits in the name of doing something for the climate.

The congressional mandate to “recognize biomass as a renewable energy source” says it all. Because biomass is renewable, it can be touted as a green energy source, but in this case “green energy” is a meaningless term.

In a special report, Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reminds us that “renewable,” “sustainable,” and “low-/no-carbon” energy are not one and the same. The sources of renewableenergy are quickly replenished after their time of use. Sustainableenergy means no diminution of the source of that energy over time. Low-/no-carbonenergy means little or no release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

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Figure 2.Biomass energy can be sourced from real forests, or poplar plantations such as this one. Source: USDA Forest Service.

Nuclear energy is low-carbon but is neither renewable nor sustainable. Hydroelectric power is renewable and low-carbon but not sustainable (just ask a salmon). If properly scaled to the heat source, geothermal energy can be renewable and is low-carbon but is not sustainable if you care about the biodiversity and the wonder of hot springs, mud pots, fumaroles, and other surface manifestations. If properly scaled to the forest resource, biomass can be renewable and can be sustainable but is not low-carbon. Properly sited wind and solar electrical generation are two sure trifectas.

All this would be apparent if America’s corporations were required to follow generally accepted carbon accounting principles (GACAP?) in the same way that they must report their earnings, assets, liabilities, and such using GAAP (generally accepted accounting principles). If there were GACAP, company performance in terms of putting carbon into the atmosphere could be evaluated fairly and consistently and could be compared with the performance of other companies. Carbon-reduction projects with provable reductions would be allowed and/or subsidized by government. Big Timber couldn’t get away with touting when it is sequestering carbon (growing trees) but failing to mention when it is emitting carbon (cutting trees). Worse yet, Big Timber likes to talk about the total forest-carbon cycle, which allows it to take credit for public forests that are sequestering carbon while its tree farms are emitting carbon.

Consequences for America’s Forests Both Public and Private

Mary S. Booth reported in her 2014 paper that while biomass heat and electricity generation have long been integral to the paper industry, more than seventy new wood-burning power plants had been built since 2005, with another seventy-five in process. In Oregon, government subsidies, both on the tax and supply sides, have caused a biomass energy boom (Map 1). In the American South, forests are being clear-cut, pelletized, and shipped to Europe where biomass energy—again by law, but not by fact—is carbon neutral.

 Map 1.  The plague of biomass energy projects just in Oregon . Source:  Bureau of Land Management .

Map 1. The plague of biomass energy projects just in Oregon. Source: Bureau of Land Management.

Real standing forests are vital to the conservation and restoration of biological diversity and watershed integrity (not to mention re-creational reconnection to nature). They are also “the only proven system that can remove and store vast amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at the scale necessary to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius this century,” says the Dogwood Alliance in their excellent call to arms The Great American Stand: US Forests and the Climate Emergency. Law, Harmon, and Moomaw note: “Forests and other terrestrial ecosystems currently remove from the atmospheric stock an amount of CO2equal to about 30% of annual emissions from all sources.”

Rather than cutting down forests and adding more carbon to the atmosphere, we should be protecting more forests so as to remove excessive carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Look Beyond the Trees to the Sun

Addressing climate change requires producing electricity without carbon emissions. Those sixty-five scientists in their letter to the leadership of the United States Senate pointed out that “using the same amount of land area, solar panels produce up to 80-times as much electricity as wood burning with no emissions at all.” But don’t jump to a clear-cut covered with solar panels. The nation’s nonworking rooftops could supply 40 percent of current US electricity use without the need to despoil another acre of open space. In addition, utility-scale wind and solar cost less to build and operate than biomass generation—and the fuel will always be free as long as the sun shines and the winds blow.