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Biomass backlash

The contrast between Scandinavia and North America is stark. In Scandinavia, biomass is becoming a major renewable energy source that’s replacing non-renewable fossil fuels. In North America, people are increasingly finding fault with biomass  as renewable energy.


August 19, 2010
By Heather Hager

The contrast between Scandinavia and North America is stark. In Scandinavia, biomass is becoming a major renewable energy source that’s replacing non-renewable fossil fuels. In North America, people are increasingly finding fault with biomass  as renewable energy.

 Biomass news has been peppered lately with communities rejecting biomass power plants. At least seven U.S. proposals have been scrapped due to public opposition. The main complaint is that people don’t want a “dirty” plant in their neighbourhood that they say will spew particulates and toxins into the air their children breathe. A secondary concern is that large areas will be deforested to fuel these plants.

 Why do they think these things? Education and communication continue to be stumbling blocks. An example is the misinterpretation of the recent Manomet study of biomass power production that had some media reports exclaiming that biomass is worse than oil (see Canadian Biomass Web Exclusives for the study summary).

 There are many claims about the benefits of biomass, but where are the hard data? A collection of facts and figures covering combustion efficiency, emissions, sustainability, and harvesting regulations would go a long way in evaluating people’s claims. A good place to start would be with companies, institutions, and nations that have extensive biomass experience.

 Heat and power plants fired by biomass, recycled wood, and municipal solid waste dot the European landscape. These plants aren’t your average wood stove and meet specific pollution standards. In Sweden, forest management has increased timber stocks, even with increasing biomass use. According to the Nordic Forest Owners’ Associations website, recent annual growth of Sweden’s timber stocks has been about 120 million m3, with annual harvest of 85–90 million m3, illustrating that biomass is not synonymous with deforestation.

Swedish policy initiatives support biomass heat and power by banning flammable materials from landfills and providing “green certificates” as supplemental income for renewable energy. Compare that with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to regulate CO2 emissions from large-scale emitters like power plants, regardless of whether they use fossil fuels or biomass. At the federal level, Canada hasn’t done much, but the biomass industry can influence whether its future policy will more resemble USA’s or Europe’s.

 Canadian biomass policy should set standards and provide support for efficient, sustainable biomass use. Standards should define sustainable biomass harvests and compel users to demonstrate a suitable, long-term supply prior to initiating large-scale projects. Policies supporting bioenergy should encourage efficient biomass use by requiring power generation to provide the excess heat for industrial processes and heating, making it much more efficient. These types of policy, based on valid data, are the way to gain public approval and promote biomass use in North America.


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