Biomass supporters cite it as a “green” fuel like wind and solar. Using it to generate electricity, though, leaves a lot to be desired in terms of public health and efficiency.
How green is biomass energy?
“On a scale from 1 to 10, how green is energy from biomass?”
What would you say?
Burning biomass for electrical production is, on its surface, attractive. Take the McNeil Generating Stationin Burlington, Vermont, as an example. In the 1970s, the Burlington Electric Department (BED) was looking for additional power sources to meet rising demand for electricity. This was the era of the First Energy Crisis, and Three Mile Island. Oil and nuclear weren’t looking so good.
According to the Burlington Electric Department (BED) website, “BED conducted studies to find a fuel source that would be locally available, reliable, cost-effective, non-polluting and publicly acceptable. Wood scored high on all counts. Using wood fuel as a generation source would put money back into the Vermont economy, improve the condition of our forests and provide jobs for Vermonters.”
Fueled by low-quality trees and harvest residues
In 1978, Burlington voters approved a bond authorizing construction, with 71 percent of voters in support. The plant, which began operating in 1984, has a net electrical output of 50 megawatts. (For comparison, Vermont’s nuclear plant, Vermont Yankee, puts out 650 megawatts.) That is nearly enough electricity for Burlington–Vermont’s largest city. In 1989, McNeil was altered to also burn natural gas. According to BED, that allows it to be online more often, thus operating more economically.
Burning wood produces emissions, but BED says that they’re well controlled. Stack devices keep particulate emissions to one-tenth of State limits and one one-hundredth of federal limits. Like other power plants, McNeil uses water for cooling. It draws that water from four wells located near the plant, and releases clean, used water into the Winooski River. Wood ash produced at McNeil is used as a soil amendment.
McNeil’s wood comes from various regional sources. Seventy percent is “whole-tree chips” that according to BED, come from “low-quality trees and harvest residues.” Those include poorly formed trees that don’t have potential to be manufactured into useful products, and tree tops. Those chips are supplemented by sawdust, chips, and bark from local sawmills. McNeil even has a drop-off location for local residents for their wood and yard waste–everything from unpainted lumber waste to trees and limbs.
A different take on the same story
That is the story told by McNeil’s owners, and it’s a pretty good one. For a different reading of this story, I talked with Josh Schlossberg, the communications coordinator for something called the Biomass Accountability Project (see the Partnership for Policy Integrity website for more info). I had heard a few months ago that Josh was very critical of biomass power and in part because he’s an old acquaintance who I know is a committed environmentalist, I wanted to learn more.
“Biomass power should be in a different category than zero-waste, zero-emissions sources like solar and wind,” says Schlossberg, even though he acknowledges that each of those has environmental impacts.
Topping Schlossberg’s list of concerns is public health. McNeil is 400 feet from a residential area of Burlington’s Old North End. Schlossberg quotes the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Emissions Inventory Database as revealing 75 different air pollutants coming from McNeil’s smokestack.
Where there’s fire, there’s smoke
Those emissions include everything from dioxin, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, formaldehyde, chlorine, heavy metals, and particulate matter (PM) 2.5. “PM2.5” is particulate matter 2.5 micrometers in diameter–so small it can’t be seen, and so tiny that it can lodge deep in the lungs, bloodstream, and internal organs. American Cancer Society studies demonstrate there is no safe level of exposure, says Schlossberg.
BED accurately characterizes McNeil emissions as being below regulatory thresholds, but the plant is still burning wood. Where there’s smoke there’s fire, and vice versa–and BED can’t possibly keep all the smoke from entering the air and ultimately the lungs of residents.
Schlossberg is also concerned about the wood supply demanded by McNeil and other similar biomass facilities, either built or proposed. When McNeil is running at full load, it consumes 76 tons of whole-tree chips per hour, according to BED, or the equivalent of 30 cords of firewood. It uses 400,000 tons of chips per year, the energy equivalent of 800,000 barrels of oil.
Wood use competes with other markets
Although BED says that McNeil uses low-quality trees as fuel, Schlossberg says that its use is competing with other possible outcomes for those trees–pulpwood (for paper), firewood, and leaving them in the forest. While the market determines where the trees end up, Schlossberg worries that the demand for electricity puts a strain on the forest and increases prices for other commodities, especially home heating wood.
How much woody biomass is available for burning? According to BED’s website, Northern Vermont could conservatively produce about one million tons of wood chips per year–enough to power two McNeil plants. While that indicates that there is some excess capacity in the woody biomass market, it doesn’t sound to me like an unlimited capacity. There are numerous biomass plants proposed for New England, and Northern Vermont could only handle one more.
Schlossberg quotes Department of Energy (DOE) statistics saying that biomass provides 0.9 percent of electrical needs nationwide. That’s a respectable showing, but it reveals that we would need a lot more biomass to make a dent in our oil, gas, and coal consumption (DOE, in its latest forecast, sees biomass electricity tripling by 2035). To this point, he dug up an interesting statistic from Harper’s magazine: if we cut down every tree in the U.S., it would meet our energy needs for one year. We don’t know what Harper’s assumed in getting that number, but it’s impressive all the same, in the devastation that would be caused for just one year of energy.
Maximizing efficient use of a (very) limited resource
A discussion of biomass wouldn’t be complete without carbon. Biomass proponents say that it is carbon-neutral: for every tree burned at McNeil and similar plants, another tree replaces it in the forest. While that may be true, climate change is an urgent issue today, and it will take decades for that new tree to grow and absorb carbon. Schlossberg, also notes that “Burning stuff is what has gotten us into the climate change problem to begin with.”
Given that our woody biomass is a limited resource, thermal electric stations like McNeil have a serious limitation–efficiency. Any power plant that extracts only electricity from a fuel source will typically be about 33 percent efficient. BED doesn’t publish efficiency figures, but according to Schlossberg, McNeil’s efficiency when burning biomass may be as low as 20 percent. The rest of the heat energy in the fuel is wasted as heat. Removing all that waste heat is the job of cooling towers using water.
Heating with firewood in a modern, efficient wood stove gives an efficiency of about 80 percent. That doesn’t help us with our lightbulbs and dishwashers, though. However, there has recently been a push for new cogeneration plants from biomass–combined-heat-and-power (CHP) plants that generate electricity and then use the waste heat to heat and cool homes and businesses in the area. These plants can run at an overall efficiency of 70 percent or better. Both wood heat and biomass-fueled CHP produce air pollution, so public health concerns remain, however.
Trying to head off a construction boom
Schlossberg says that he and organizations he works with don’t have a position on wood heat and biomass CHP. So far, they’re focusing on biomass power plants, and trying to head off what threatens in parts of the country to become a construction boom for them. At the very least, Schlossberg says, he’d like those plants to try to stand on their own without taxpayer funding.
Do you have an answer–how green is biomass energy, on a scale from 1 to 10?
- U.S. Expands Seeding of Biomass (green.blogs.nytimes.com)
- New studies raise doubts about greenness of biomass (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Variation in indoor levels of PAHs from burning various biomass types (iapnews.wordpress.com)
- Wood-burning may bring reprieve for Tilbury Power Station (telegraph.co.uk)
- Energy Processes for Biomass (brighthub.com)
- The promise of biotechnology (oecotextiles.wordpress.com)
- Doubts cast on biomass power in Washington (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- UPDATE 1-Dominion unit says 3 power plants to switch to biomass (reuters.com)
The number of American businesses with formal green programs in place increased 54 percent last year according to new research from Buck Consultants(a subsidiary of Xerox). Of about 120 businesses surveyed — including hardware and other technology firms, government offices, consultancies, non-profits, hospitals, and the makers of consumer packaged goods — 69 percent said they took deliberate measures to improve their environmental and social impact in 2010.
What motivated companies to go green, officially?
Fifty-eight percent said they started their programs to create “community goodwill,” and 46 percent said they did so to improve stakeholder perception of their business. During the recession, however, 78 percent of companies with green programs came to view cost savings as the top, desired return on investment.
Over 90 percent of companies realized cost savings as a direct result of their green programs: 78 percent of them saved on electricity, 68 percent on heating and cooling, 68 percent on paper, and 60 percent saved on water. About 9 percent of companies with formal green programs said they failed to save money thanks to their initiatives in 2010.
Spending may have exceeded savings in some cases; big-ticket items like electric vehicles for company fleets, or the installation of solar canopies and rooftops, and building-wide, networked lighting systems that use sensors and LEDs (light emitting diodes) can cost a company in the short-term, for example, but lead to savings on fuel or electricity over the longer term.
Public transport market share must double by 2025 to save $140 billion from energy consumption while reducing greenhouse gas emissions as well, a report from a global network of public transport officials showed.
The International Association of Public Transport (U.I.T.P.), based on well-documented urban economic and technological development projections and a partnership with the International Energy Agency, compared the impacts and benefits of the expected business scenario with that of public transport times two, or PTx2, in 2025.
The group presented the PTx2 program during the 59th World Congress in Dubai which started April 10 and will end on April 14.
The expected scenario is projected according to current trends. Scenarios were evaluated under the projections on how the cities will evolve until that year compared to 2005. Read more…
New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization, an association which undertakes the development of new energy and energy-conservation technologies in Japan, selected Mitsubishi Corporation, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd., and Hitachi Ltd. to help build a Smart Community System Demonstration project in Spain this year.
A “smart community” comprehensively manages all of its energy use, which includes electricity, heat and waste energy, and incorporates transportation and infrastructure into its greening scheme. It will employ highly developed technology such as an advanced smart grid that will help control electricity supply and demand through the use of information and communication technologies.
The project will be done under the Japan-Spain Innovation Program which aims to promote, assist, and fund joint technological ventures that will economically benefit both countries. The smart community will be built in the surrounding area of Malaga City, Andalucía, in Southern Spain.
N.E.D.O. selected the companies because of what they can offer to the development of the project. M.C. will be contributing its global business knowledge, and M.H.I. will give its intelligent transport system which aids in the reduction of traffic congestion and delays, increase productivity, and reduce energy use and environmental damage. Read more…
The fallout from Fukushima has had ripple effects in the nuclear industry across the world, but nowhere outside of Japan has the impact been so significant as in Germany. Here the ensuing frenzy has resulted in a moratorium on nuclear power plant permit extensions and the closure of seven nuclear plants. Now the nuclear power plant operators have fired a shot across the political bow: they have stopped supporting green energy.
Why is the German nuclear industry investing in green power? And why are they stopping now? The story starts in 2005, when the German conservative party, the CDU, promised to overturn a law by the socialist-green coalition to close down all nuclear power by 2021. The CDU won the national elections. To calm public protest, they negotiated a deal with the nuclear industry: The nuclear operators would invest a good percentage of the windfall profits from extending nuclear power plant permits in funds for the expansion of alternative energy. The nuclear investment was expected to boost green energy funds by €16.9 billion (US$24 billion) in total, approximately 300 million euros in 2011-2012 alone.
On Saturday 9 April, all nuclear operators — RWE, EnBW, Vattenfall and E.ON — announced they were stopping payments into the green energy fund. It is particularly interesting that the nuclear operators are not keeping a low profile during what was announced as merely a three month moratorium to review the planned permit extensions. On the one hand, the nuclear operators are within their rights. The windfall profits expected from permit extensions (subject to extensive safety reviews) have turned into sudden, unanticipated red ink as power plants have undergone politically ordered shutdowns. Thus, the monies earmarked for the green energy fund do not exist. (It should be noted that the nuclear operators intend to put the agreed payments into a collateral account until resolution of the issue.)
But the strategy may backfire. The peremptory and unilateral cessation of payments makes the investment fund look more like a political bargaining chip than ever. What was arguably a reasonable political strategy to use nuclear plants as a bridge to greener energy now lays in tattered disarray, exposed as politics pure rather than logical risk management and strategic energy planning.
Hitachi, Ltd., Mitsubishi Electric Corporation, and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd. entered into an agreement to consolidate their hydroelectric power generation system operations, forming a founding company that in the long term will address the demand for alternative energy.
Through the consolidation, the three companies will be able to integrate their engineering development and design strengths. This will also upgrade their human resources and stabilize technologies and expertise in the hydropower business.
Under the agreement, the three companies will establish a company to be called HM Hydro, Ltd, that will serve as the platform for the operations of the new company. It will be launched in May as a Hitachi subsidiary.
The companies will each transfer their own hydroelectric operations to HM Hydro, which include marketing, installation and after-sale services of hydropower equipment; hydroelectric power generation systems engineering; and development and design of core components of hydroelectric systems. Read more…