Biomass: What is it and why should we care?

Posted on: Dec 15, 2016 - 10:07 AM | General
Author: Staff

Who wants to take on the massive job of disposing of a bunch of dead pinyon and juniper trees? The Forest Service and other agencies involved in fuel mitigation projects – cutting down these trees and other vegetation – usually set fire to the piles of slash in prescribed burns.

But there could be another way to get rid of it – and make money at the same time. It’s part of a possible biomass industry being studied by the Upper Verde River Watershed Protection Coalition.

The Coalition is using grant money to find out if all that woody vegetation from public and private land in Yavapai County can be converted economically into “biomass,” which is organic material used as a fuel, especially for generation of electricity.

Biomass can be the firewood used in wood stoves; it also can be manure, methane, or food crop waste. Wood is the largest source of biomass energy, however, and is used as harvested or processed into pellet or other forms of fuel.

Wood waste products have been used as substitutes in coal-burning plants in several countries, including the U.S. But controversy exists, including environmental issues with pollution and whether it is a sustainable energy source.

Some claim wood biomass burns more cleanly than coal, but others disagree and say it actually releases more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The Biomass Power Association website states that using biomass as energy reduces greenhouse gases (GHS) because decomposition of organic wastes in the open creates more gases than combustion.

Others say burning biomass results in higher levels of pollutants than coal-burning plants in the form of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulates and volatile organic compounds.

The Union of Concerned Scientists wrote in a Nov. 12, 2015, How Biopower Works, “If not managed and monitored carefully, biomass for energy can be harvested at unsustainable rates, damage ecosystems, produce harmful air pollution, consume large amounts of water, and produce net global warming emissions.”

In Europe, power plant owners receive subsidies which help meet the high costs of buying wood pellets, most of which are imported from North America. In Copenhagen, Denmark, the Avedore CHP coal-fired station plant has converted completely to biomass fuel composed of wood pellets and straw.

In the United States, biomass energy was once hailed as one way to reduce dependence on foreign oil, and was supported by many in the agricultural and forest industries.

In Yavapai County, the problem is the expense of cutting the trees, and the difficulty transporting the slash or chipped vegetation to a facility that can use it. Whether it’s economically viable, and whether it is sustainable, is not certain.

John Upton, author of Biomass Power Slumps as EPA, Industry Spar on Science, (Aug. 17, 2016, Climate Central) wrote that the biomass wood industry is floundering.

“Compared with fossil fuels, wood contains little energy and lots of carbon. Producing a megawatt hour of electricity by burning wood releases more heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than burning coal,” Upton wrote.

He adds that the sector for biomass energy is small and benefits forestry companies trying to dispose of woody waste. “The costs of gathering the fuel makes it uneconomical in modern electricity markets, which has caused the sector to shrink.”

California, for instance, has 35 biomass power plants, with about 12 of them standing idle. This year in Maine, two of its six biomass plants stopped operating.

The Upper Verde coalition is conducting projects on forest, state land, and private property, to thin pinyon and juniper, comparing costs to do so by hand crew and by machinery. A grant from the Arizona Commerce Authority will help determine if there’s a possible market for the biomass and in creation of jobs.

Proponents claim the biomass industry in Arizona is a sustainable source of energy because of the available trees and woody waste on forest and state lands. However, to be considered a sustainable form of energy, trees must either be replanted or regrow naturally to be processed in future years.

Arizona State Forester Jeff Whitney said at the Coalition’s All Hands, All Lands conference Nov. 15 that 1 million acres in Arizona could and should be mitigated, but it is not possible. It would take 20 years to manage 50 acres per year, he said.

Since there is no ability to truck it anywhere, the market for biomass material has to be local. Drake Cement in Paulden has expressed an interest in testing the waste product from the Coalition’s biomass supply availability assessment project. Drake Cement will pay for delivered juniper waste up to 100 tons and will evaluate how the chipped wood works in coal co-fire tests.

“The good news is that we’ve got a boatload of it (juniper). The bad news is it’s hard to get to,” Whitney said.




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