Is biomass “green” energy? | AIER

Industrial wind turbines and solar panels are gaining the lion’s share of attention as “green” alternatives to fossil fuels. But biomass is in the mix, and like the other two, it presents major trade-offs that complicate government and non-governmental efforts to transition the world off carbon-based energy. It’s not easy being green, especially with renewable energy sources that emit both carbon dioxide and significant pollutants.


Biomass power plants use wood and wood products, trees and forestry residues, and industrial wastes such as bark and sawdust instead of fossil fuels. Advocates hope to create a sustainable cycle of harvesting, burning and replanting in a way that does not increase net carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere by growing new trees to remove carbon added to the atmosphere by burning old ones. By contrast, burning fossil fuels takes carbon that has long been sequestered and adds it to the atmosphere.

At first glance, the use of biomass appears to be a plausible solution to the problem of reducing carbon emissions. However, serious resistance has arisen since entire forests in the United Kingdom and the European Union were cleared to produce wood pellets for biomass fuel plants.

Government subsidies

The controversy is even more significant as the United States, the UK and the EU subsidize biomass power plants by billions of dollars each year. In the US, the federal government spends about $13 billion annually through tax incentives and special programs administered by the US Department of Energy, the US Department of Agriculture and other agencies. And across the pond like Mary S. Booth of the Partnership for Policy Integrity. observable:

Bioenergy operators in the European Union receive more than 16 billion euros annually in renewable energy subsidies…annual carbon fees that they would have to pay if biomass were not treated as having zero emissions.

Ongoing debate

Booth’s article is part of a discussion on biomass energy organized by Bulletin of the Atomic Scientistsand published in May 2022 release your digital magazine. The papers opposing biomass energy make the following points:

  1. Burning wood gives more CO2 emissions per unit of energy than when burning natural gas, fuel oil or even coal.
  2. Burning wood gives more pollution per unit of energy than burning fossil fuels.
  3. Cutting down trees for fuel now eliminates promise carbon sinks – a promise that may or may not be honored – or replace them sometime in the future.
  4. Newly planted trees will remove CO2 from the atmosphere, but only after decades.
  5. Deforestation causes disturbance to the soil, which results in the release of carbon that is currently stored in the ground, carbon that is significantly exceeds what is contained in the trees themselves.
  6. Deforestation destroys the habitat.
  7. Clearing forests and replanting them with tree “crops” reduces biodiversity, which reduces the resistance of forests to diseases and insects.

Papers advocating the use of biomass argue that it can be done sustainably, but only if done right:

  1. burning wood instead brown coal is the dirtiest and least energy-intensive fossil fuel.
  2. By-products of wood burning otherwise it would be lost instead of cutting down forests and turning them into wood pellets.

Raymond Pierrumbert, author of an article on biomass, recognizes that neither the UK nor Europe is doing it right. On the other hand, he rejects the criticism that biomass is based on CO production.2 now in exchange for a sequester later:

The New Yorker article naively views carbon emissions from biomass burning as a “giant loophole” in climate protection protocols, dismissing the possibility of regeneration on the grounds that reforestation will take decades to offset the carbon emitted, but a delay of several decades is not really a serious problem compared to the almost irreversible climate damage caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

But CO2 CO2 whether it is produced by burning wood or coal, and neither is more “irreversible” than the other. Also, burning coal and planting trees are not mutually exclusive activities. We have the following options:

Burn wood and plant trees Burn fossil fuels and plant trees
More CO2 emissions Less CO2 emissions
More pollution Less pollution
Immediate loss of forests and with them carbon sinks, habitats and biodiversity. Does not affect existing trees, carbon sequestered by the soil, existing habitat, or current biodiversity.
Plant new trees, sequestering carbon over time Plant new trees, sequestering carbon over time

Biomass proponents ignore or reject the second set of options. They argue that fossil fuels are permanently sequestered carbon. While trees also represent sequestered carbon, they are not permanent carbon sinks. Eventually, they will put their carbon back into the atmosphere through wildfires or decay. So burning fossil fuels adds “new” carbon to the mix, but burning trees does not.

This argument overlooks the fact that trees can be harvested and used for other purposes other than firewood. Houses, furniture, books and paper products are relatively permanent carbon sinks. In addition, biomass energy is ahead of the carbon shock. Carbon sinks are immediately lost and carbon emissions in excess of what would be produced if fossil fuels were burned instead are produced immediately. If IPCC climate scientists are right, carbon should be sequestered. currentlyand carbon emissions must be reduced currently.

Finally, even their proponents view biomass power plants as only a temporary measure – an alternative to be pursued until better solutions are available. But this temporary measure comes with an initial long-term cost that is higher than with fossil fuels until better solutions are available. Moreover, once secured through government subsidies, biomass will be as difficult to eradicate as corn-based ethanol has proven to be, despite its ongoing environmental damage.


The UK and the EU have created a new special interest a group that is interested in maintaining the flow of subsidies and favorable regulation. As Kevin D. Williamson once remarked, when the government does stupid things, they do immortal stupid things.

Instead of subsidizing biomass plants and exempting them from carbon taxes, the UK and EU should consider leveling the playing field by eliminating all energy subsidies – both monetary and regulatory – as a first step towards fundamental policy reform.

In the US, programs such as the Biomass Growth Assistance Program, Advanced Biofuel Bioenergy Program, Rural Energy for America, Biorefinery Assistance Program, Biomass Research and Development Initiative, and Public Energy and Timber Innovation Program are candidates for reduction or elimination. .

Level field, no use represents a consumer-oriented and tax-payer-neutral approach to energy policy. Voluntary transactions between consenting adults under the rule of law can be expected to lead to effective solutions.

Robert L. Bradley Jr.

Robert L. Bradley

Robert L. Bradley, Jr., AIER Senior Fellow, is the founder and CEO of the Energy Research Institute. He is the author of eight books on energy history and public policy, and also writes the MasterResource blogs.

Bradley received a bachelor’s degree in economics from Rollins College, a master’s degree in economics from the University of Houston, and a Ph.D. in political economy from the International College.

He was a Schultz Fellow in Economic Research and a Freedom Foundation Fellow in Economic Research, and in 2002 he received the Julian L. Simon Memorial Award for his work in energy and sustainability.

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Richard Fulmer

Richard Fulmer co-author of the book Energy: the main resource (Kendall-Hunt: 2004) and numerous articles on free market economics. He received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1978 from New Mexico State University and worked as an engineer and systems analyst before retiring to write freelance.

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