Rethinking Biomass

Biomass is any substance that is living or that was once living. Wood, animals, microbes, fungi, and peat are all biomass. The energy in biomass comes from the photosynthesis of sunlight in plants. Except for the direct warmth of sunlight, waterwheels and sailing ships, biomass as food or fuel has been the predominant source of energy for humans until the last century or two and still is for half the human race.

Biomass has been in the news a lot lately. CO2 fertilization and increasing moisture and temperature cause runaway plant growth and many problems.  Overgrown and crowded trees and underbrush become diseased, storm-damaged
and can create wildfires.

Trees have a hard life. The average lifespan of a seedling is less than a year. Trees compete for resources and limit one another's growth. Timely thinning and pruning improve the health of remaining trees and increase total carbon uptake in the long run. Proper thinning ensures remaining trees grow bigger and live longer.  

Normally in Canada, for every tree cut for lumber, four burn down, and ten are killed by insects. This year is different, with an area as big as the state of South Carolina burning in a few weeks. Wonder why the sky is brown?

cooked out of wood

What happens when storms hit these weak trees?

Saplings ruined by the
weight of snow

Graph comparing 2023 fires

Biomass also includes animal waste, crop waste, food processing wastes, fats, oils, and grease (FOG) in grease traps and biodiesel byproducts. They present disposal problems, overloading sewage plants and waterways and creating dead zones in lakes and oceans.  If left in the environment those wastes would release methane into the air, 85 times worse than CO2. 

Anaerobic digesters can provide a solution to this pollution by concentrating the nutrients in those nuisances for easy soil application and storing them til needed. Most of the biological energy contained comes off as methane fuel, completely isolated from the atmosphere until it can provide heat or electricity. In tropical regions sugar cane and its crop residues deliver an EROI (energy return on investment) twice as good as solar panels.

There's been shrill opposition to using any form of biomass for anything and this has two causes, neither originating in biomass.  One was deficiencies in how the American economic system allocates money, leading to speculation bubbles; the other was our unsubstantiated political debate, loaded with lies, misinformation, half-truths and disinformation, spread by fossil fuel interests and their allies. Biomass is correctly seen as competing with investments in fossil fuels and the value of fossil fuel reserves.

It's not about what's true, it's about what you can get people to believe, called 'Sophistry' by the Greeks 400 years before Christ. Been there, done that. Seen it before.

 The newly rewritten Green Party platform gives a qualified endorsement to several forms of biomass energy. Qualified is appropriate; people CAN screw anything up, and the American system of financial speculation if not regulated WILL screw anything up.

The states of New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine have all endorsed 'conscientiously sourced' biomass as energy sources. The United States government has endorsed 'conscientiously sourced biomass" as a source of carbon-neutral energy, and it most certainly is renewable, recycling carbon dioxide over and over. Crop residues, mostly grasses, recycle on a yearly basis whether we use them or not. We spend vast amounts of fertilizer to get the nutrient-poor residues to decay when they could be pelletized and replace fossil fuels.

The Menominee Indian Reservation in northern Wisconsin is proof that responsible forestry can contribute to the climate solution.  In almost 170 years, the tribe has harvested nearly twice the forest’s former volume of timber, yet it still has 40% more standing wood than when they started.  The reservation is estimated to be making a net capture of more than 30,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the air annually. 

Growth-rings show accelerated growth after forest thinning

Properly managed, trees sequester carbon pollution and create a source of renewable energy.

by Frank Jeffers

Showing 4 reactions

  • Francis Jeffers
    commented 2023-08-03 10:28:56 -0400
    From F. Jeffers: the photo at the top shows chipped up storm debris from the city of Northampton only from the snowstorm. All the rural roads had some sort of tree or limb down in the road or on the wires every couple of hundred yards all up and down the roads. Fortunately the snowplows shoved most of this stuff off the right of way.
    Also, the use of fossil fuel reserves for bank collateral underpins the ability of the banks to loan money and supports the whole economy.
  • Jack Swindlehurst
    published this page in News 2023-08-01 17:24:52 -0400
  • Jack Swindlehurst
    published this page in News 2023-08-01 17:21:21 -0400
  • Jack Swindlehurst
    published this page in News 2023-08-01 17:18:47 -0400