Biomass CO2 emissions worse than coal
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Friday, June 11, 2010

BOSTON - A new study has found that wood-burning power plants using trees and other "biomass" from New England forests release more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than coal plants do over time.

The report, commissioned by Massachusetts state environmental officials and conducted by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, concludes that the net cumulative emissions of greenhouse gases from replacing coal-fired plants with biomass would be 3 percent greater by 2050 than from using coal to generate electricity.

Coal is considered one of the chief culprits of greenhouse gas emissions.

Researchers arrived at the figure by comparing how much carbon is emitted into the atmosphere through the burning of wood - what they termed "carbon debt" - with the amount of carbon removed from the atmosphere from the regrowth of forests, or "carbon dividends."

The report found that harvesting trees for biomass facilities could have "significant localized impacts on the landscape, including aesthetic impacts of locally heavy harvesting as well as potential impacts on recreation and tourism."

The findings of the six-month study support arguments by biomass opponents who claim that plants proposed for Greenfield and elsewhere around western Massachusetts would produce more carbon dioxide than those burning fossil fuels.

"This comports with my own research," said Mary Booth of Pelham, co-founder of the Massachusetts Environmental Energy Alliance. "Over any time frame that we care about for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, biomass emits dramatically more CO2 than any fossil fuel. It would literally take decades to get back the carbon you lost when you burned those trees, and then you're still not where you would be had you just let the forest grow, because as it grows, the forest sequesters a lot of the carbon that's emitted by fossil fuels."

Biomass has long been part of the state's portfolio of renewable energy sources, along with solar, wind and geothermal energy. The Patrick administration has already invested $1 million to jump-start four proposed wood-burning plants in Russell, Greenfield, Springfield and Pittsfield, as it tries to reach the state-mandated goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.

Massachusetts Environmental Secretary Ian Bowles said Thursday the state is now rethinking that policy, including taxpayer incentives for wood-burning plants.

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