Biomass: Energy of the Future?

by kespeland on December 2, 2009


On a recent Tuesday evening, residents of Scottsburg, Indiana gathered in the plain white sanctuary of the First Southern Baptist Church—not to worship, but to protest.

“We don’t need another burner that will put out more carbon dioxide and particulate matters than coal in our area.”

This is Pat Berna.  She’s a nurse practitioner who has been organizing opposition to the biomass plants.  They worry the new plants will spew more pollution than coal-fired plants. Biomass is basically organic fuel: anything from wood chips, to switchgrass, to the leftovers from agricultural production.  It’s either burned or turned into a gas to create steam, which then turns a turbine to make electricity.  A pretty old technology in some ways, although the Scottsburg and Milltown plants will use a newer, more efficient method.  Still, Berna says it’s not enough.

“We’ve looked at what they’re going to burn, and the regulations and the filtering just are not sufficient, nor will they adapt the better technologies,” says Berna.

She couldn’t say what those better technologies are, although she and other opponents cite a list of other problems they believe the plants will cause–including airborne soot and dust, increased traffic, and odor.  The plants’ developer, Liberty Green Renewables, says may of these claims are false.  But they weren’t allowed to respond at the meeting.  So I met Liberty Green partner Terry Naulty on the porch of a restaurant around the corner. I asked him what he made of so much vigorous opposition.

“I think it’s a combination of not in my backyard and a general misunderstanding of the technology.”

Naulty says one misunderstanding is about what the fuel really is.  It won’t be cut from trees in virgin forests, or grown on land that could be harnessed to produce food.

“Well, this area of southern Indiana is actually a highly productive forest products industry.  And we have a lot of sawmills, a lot of furniture manufacturing, and the waste products that come from those operations is what we use as fuel,” Naulty says.

Available biomass resources in the U.S.. Image courtesy NREL.

Available biomass resources in the U.S.. Image courtesy NREL.

But just because it’s renewable, is it cleaner?  The Environmental Protection Agency says biomass produces considerably fewer pollutants than coal.  There’s much lower toxic mercury and acid rain-causing sulfur dioxide.  And its global warming-producing carbon dioxide emissions are considered nominal.

Richard Bain is an engineer with the National Renewable Energy Lab’s bioenergy center.  He says the biggest concerns with biomass plants built close to communities he’s studied are often the increased traffic and the potential odor of stored wood, if it gets wet. Liberty Green has proposed widening roods to handle that traffic and says it should be able to contain any odors on site.  But residents have one more concern: that the plant will release toxics into the water it uses to cool the boiler and then discharges.  Richard Bain says that won’t happen.

“If you’re using it either for irrigation purposes or putting it into a municipal water treatment system, it should have no negative environmental impact.”

Those are the two methods Liberty Green has elected to handle their waste water. They say the water never touches any of the fuel. It circulates through metal tubes several times and is then released. In Scottburg, it will go into the wastewater treatment system.  In Milltown, it will irrigate a field of switchgrass, which the company will also use for fuel onsite.  So, while opponents continue to fight them, environmental permits for the plants are pending.  And interest in biomass is picking up elsewhere, including in Kentucky, where some of the Governor’s top advisors believe biomass will be the most abundantly available renewable energy source for the future.

Comments Closed

{ 8 comments }

Brian December 2, 2009 at 5:44 pm

It is surprising that someone with a nurse practitioners education can just ignore science. The carbon that is released in the combustion of biomass is the same carbon that the plants absorbed in the photosynthesis process when the fuel source grows. And I can assure you that the EPA has very stringent air pollution control permit regulations for new technologies like biomass, are much cleaner than the combustion of coal or oil. Energy from Waste is the next wave of renewable energy in the US and the rest of the Globe, it is a nobrainer to use a waste product as a fuel source, instead of letting it decompose in a landfill or field, both options create methane gas which is a greenhouse pollutant.a

michaelann bewsee December 3, 2009 at 8:38 am

Pat Bernia is right on, and the previous commenter misses the point. The “carbon neutrality” of biomass has been successfully debunked. See http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/23/science/earth/23biofuel.html?_r=1&hpw. The carbon neutrality claim also doesn’t take into account the emissions of the trucks carrying the so-called fuel to the plant and the emissions of the machinery to load, unload and process the wood. Methane from a landfill can be captured and used for fuel. Finally, there is NO safe limit of fine particulate matter, known to cause a myriad of health problems. See http://springfieldincinerator.info

Kristin Espeland December 3, 2009 at 5:17 pm

Thanks for your comments. It seems as though every alternative energy option requires some kind of trade off. Certainly, additional traffic will bring more emissions.

But one clarification: The NYT article focuses on the discrepancies in accounting for carbon dioxide emissions from different sources of biomass. It is not “carbon neutral,” for example, if it comes from an existing forest, cleared for use as fuel, because that forest was absorbing carbon dioxide until cut and burned–so you’re adding new CO2 that wasn’t there before. But that is a very different thing than using waste from the forest industry, waste from agriculture, even crops grown for fuel on land that would not normally be used to grow food crops.

Jim December 3, 2009 at 9:51 am

I agree with Brian, I was at that meeting. Afterwords I went home and did some research on my own and found out that at the meeting, I was being misled about a number of topics, including the fact that they never mentioned how clean biomass is versus coal and the fact that biomass does not release methane, a real danger to the environment. They also tried to scare us at the meeting about this new plant not having the same scrubbers as a coal plant. What I easily found online is that when you don’t have sulfur, why would you have a sulfur scrubber? I went to the church expecting the truth and left feeling like I was being used as a pawn in someone’s game. We need to to stick to the facts and stop scaring people.

Deb December 4, 2009 at 11:59 am

Everyone concerned should do their own research. Much of the info used to oppose biomass incinerators comes from very reliable sources. For the excess co2 output see Science Magazine. For health concerns, ask the American Lung Association. Or how about the State governments of Oregon and Rhode Island; they have prohibited biomass plants in their states. IDEM will not protect us, we are the 49th state for worst pollution!

Kristin Espeland December 4, 2009 at 1:05 pm

Oregon has not banned biomass plants. See this list of incentives for developers, which includes biomass: http://www.oregon.gov/ENERGY/RENEW/Biomass/incentive.shtml.

Neither has Rhode Island. See page 21 of the state’s comprehensive energy plan, which includes pursuing biomass: http://www.energy.ri.gov/documents/RI_State_Energy_Plan.pdf.

Will December 8, 2009 at 12:05 pm

Indiana ranks as the 49th worst state for pollution in large part due to the production of electricity through the use of coal. The use of biomass is 90% cleaner than coal. It only make sense that if you can produce the same electricity with only 10% of the pollutants produced though the use of coal that it is a major advantage. I personally intend to continue my habit of flipping on a switch when I walk into a dark room, if I can do that while producing less impact on the environment I certainly feel good about that!

steve segrest December 9, 2009 at 8:24 am

Anyone wanting science and engineering based information on whether biomass energy is carbon cycle neutral and if biomass energy really is renewable compared to solar and wind energy can go to the Webpage:

http://www.treepower.org/biomass/quickfacts.html

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