July 6, 2010 - biomass after the Manomet biomass study

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A recent report by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences has been widely reported as casting doubt on whether biomass-generated power is truly climate-friendly. However, another set of sources are critiquing the mass-media coverage as misleading. (For example, see this Morning Sentinel editorial expressing support for biomass, including wood pellets.)

So what did Manomet really study? The Executive Summary provides a 4-page overview, and the whole report is available here. The Manomet work addresses three policy questions that are being asked as Massachusetts develops its policies on the use of forest biomass:
1. What are the atmospheric greenhouse gas implications of shifting energy production from fossil fuel sources to forest biomass?
2. How much wood is available from forests to support biomass energy development in Massachusetts?
3. What are the potential ecological impacts of increased biomass harvests on forests in the Commonwealth, and what if any policies are needed to ensure these harvests are sustainable?

Manomet's study divides the carbon impacts of biomass combustion into two phases: carbon debt and carbon dividend. Manomet uses "carbon debt" to describe the excess of emissions from forest biomass burning over fossil fuels. However, over time, forest re-growth removes this carbon from the atmosphere, and can reduce this carbon debt to zero. Over even longer times, after the carbon debt is paid off, biomass yields "carbon dividends" -- atmospheric greenhouse gas levels below the levels that would have resulted from making the same amount of energy by using fossil fuels.

Manomet concludes that the carbon debt from burning biomass in combined heat-and-power is lower than the debt created from utility-scale stand-alone biomass plants -- not a surprising result for anyone familiar with CHP. Manomet also notes that how quickly a biomass project "breaks even" over its carbon debt depends on what resources the biomass replaces. Replacing oil provides carbon dividends within 5 years, while Manomet found that replacing natural gas electric generation with biomass may not break even after 90 years.

Manomet also found that within Massachusetts, there wasn't that much more biomass available -- although if biomass prices rise (probably due to energy prices rising), it would be economical to harvest more wood within the Commonwealth.

So when we hear the "Manomet report" described as dooming the biomass industry, I recommend a closer reading of the report itself, to see its true impacts on biomass energy.

Also in Maine editorials: the Lewiston Sun Journal supporting wind power, including former Governor Angus King's proposed 128 MW wind farm in Highland Plantation. The editorial notes that former Green Independent Party candidate Jonathan Carter (who lives 3.5 miles from the Highland site) publicly opposes wind in Maine. The editorial observes that some of Carter's concerns are valid -- like impacts from roadbuilding, or scenic impacts -- but that on the whole, as a policy matter, these downsides are worth facing in order to reap the upside. Whether or not you agree with the Sun Journal's editorial board, they did a great job laying out the policy considerations. The mere existence of a downside does not make bad policy. No real-world solution is flawless; all have their downsides. But if society feels those downsides are worth the upside, then that choice can make sense.

How many Maine energy-related editorials can there be in one week? At least one more, with the Bangor Daily News expressing support for wind energy.

Meanwhile, breaking news: Maine Earth First is blocking access to the Kibby Mountain site, where TransCanada is adding 22 more towers to its existing 22 tower array. About 350 Earth Firsters are attending Earth First's annual weeklong international gathering nearby.

And way out there on the R&D level: researchers at Washington State University have created a never-been-seen-before form of ultra-high density xenon difluoride (XeF2). Nifty stuff, especially so since it could theoretically be used to store radical amounts of energy. In essence, as you compress XeF2, the molecules change shape: the massive amount of mechanical compression energy is converted into chemical energy, resulting in a whole lot of juice stored in a little box. This is all way too new to be commercial yet, but keep your eyes on the horizon for this technology.

1 comment:

Blogger said...

I found some useful info on combined heat and power here

Post a Comment