Editorial: Image Matters
December 4, 2009
By Heather Hager
In the popularity contest among alternative bioenergy options, biomass is the kid getting shunned in favour of its better-dressed classmates.
In the popularity contest among alternative bioenergy options, biomass is the kid getting shunned in favour of its better-dressed classmates. Consumers, media, and government subsidies are being charmed by solar, wind, and geothermal energy while biomass becomes the outcast child. The public has touted biomass as worse than fossil fuels, and at least one person (who clearly skipped math class) has stated that it requires two trees planted to replace each one removed for biomass.
How did the public become so misinformed? The biomass industry has not been effective at educating people about biomass energy. Certainly, not as effective as proponents of other complementary sources of renewable energy. It’s not that the other renewable energies don’t have their faults. Each option has its own environmental pros and cons. But a forest-based industry like biomass is at a prior disadvantage because of forestry’s long history in North America—it already has black marks against it for previous clear cutting and perceived lack of forest regeneration. It is little wonder that the current perception is that forests will be mowed down and burned to produce energy, putting more carbon into the atmosphere than burning fossil fuels, and removing the trees that were previously absorbing carbon.
It’s time to brush up this image of biomass if it is to remain a viable renewable energy option. A good start would be to clarify what biomass is. Comments from outside the industry make it clear that people assume that trees are being cut to provide biomass. The majority of people have no idea that, previously, when trees were cut for timber harvest, thinning, and fire risk reduction, the slash and unmerchantable timber (now biomass) were simply burned in the forest anyway. And they don’t know that the residuals from sawmilling were landfilled, burned in beehive burners, or piled unused, without harnessing the available energy. By using biomass, the waste is combusted under emissions-controlled conditions to provide heat and energy and is diverted from landfills.
However, this so-called waste wood will not remain the only source of biomass. Roundwood is already being made into wood pellets, for example. So the biomass industry has a vested interest in ensuring that biomass sources are harvested sustainably. After all, if the biomass harvest is not sustainable, the industry will not be sustainable. The biomass industry is not exempt from forest harvesting guidelines whereby the cut is counterbalanced by new growth. In addition, the provinces are developing and evaluating policies for sustainable biomass extraction, and those policies will continue to evolve with additional research and industry development. These messages must get out to the public.
Finally, third-party sustainability certification for biomass and its products would give consumers a tangible assurance of responsible resource use.
Although the solar, wind, and geothermal sectors seem to be getting their message across clean and clear, biomass is not. And until it does, it will continue to be the last player chosen for the team and to relinquish potential market share to other forms of renewable energy. •
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