Biomass is quickly becoming the Urban Outfitter of renewable energy. Which is to say, it is becoming increasingly popular, especially here in the Northwest. Why, you ask?
It is a simple concept: burn wood-waste (forest debris—a fancy term for fallen trees—and logging byproducts—more commonly known as wood chips) to create energy. The process is slightly more complicated, but consider biomass as a large wood-burning stove. In essence, the stove is used to boil water, which creates steam. The steam is then used to rotate turbines, and thus energy is born.
The Northwest has a rather large supply of wood-waste. In Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, there are 22 paper mills, plus countless lumber mills. While paper and lumber mills recycle their own waste into their products (think: OSB, Particle Board, and, well, paper), quite a bit of the waste can be—and is—used to generate power. This fact, combined with Oregon’s 4.25 million acres of forestland, suggests that biomass could be a viable renewable energy option.
One of the byproducts of transforming paper into pulp is a thick, dark liquid called “black liquor.” Paper mills can generate as much as two-thirds of their own electricity by burning black liquor. What’s more, black liquor is currently being tested as an additive in biodiesel, which could reduce automotive emissions by as much as 95%.
Alas, while Oregonforest.org call biomass a “triple win” for its ability to restore “forest health,” help reach “renewable energy goals,” and offer “hundreds of jobs,” critics are skeptical.
As cited by Eric Mortenson of The Oregionian, a four-year study by Oregon State University yielded unfavorable results. Harvesting wood-waste creates carbon and eliminates the very trees that actually reduce carbon. Indeed, as OSU’s Tara Hudiburg asserts, “the use of these forests for high bioenergy production would increase carbon emissions 17 percent from their current level.”
Unfortunately, OSU is not alone in their findings. Erik Olson of The Daily News notes that a “2010 study by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, an environmental think tank, showed that burning biomass emits 45 percent more carbon dioxide gases than coal for the same amount of energy.”
Still, Biomass is heating up in other parts of the nation. In Port St. Joe, Florida, Rentech Inc.’s plans to develop a 55 megawatt biomass plant was approved by the City Council. The plant is slated to cost $225 million, and is expected to create 285 jobs. In other parts of Florida and in New Hampshire, similar plants are currently in development.
Will the Northwest catch on the biomass trend, or will it let biomass go the way of corn ethanol?