Biomass — or Biomess? A Debate

BobSaulChris Matera photo 2Are wood-burning biomass power plants a climate solution — or scourge?  To explore the pros and cons of biomass, Sea Change Radio Co-Host Francesca Rheannon hosted a debate between Bob Saul, head of domestic land acquisition with GMO Renewable Resources, and Chris Matera, founder of Massachusetts Forest Watch.

With the world looking to replace fossil fuels in the race to mitigate global climate disruption, it’s clear a mix of renewable energy strategies will have to be deployed. But as the corn ethanol debacle shows, not all cures to the climate conundrum are equal. Some may even end up hurting the patient. Producing ethanol from corn biomass emits more carbon than was saved, wastes huge amounts of water and takes cropland away from growing food. That has led to spikes in food prices, raising levels of hunger around the world. So trodding carefully onto the path of renewable energy is vital if we are not to waste precious time and resources on solutions that aren’t sustainable.

Another feedstock for biomass production is wood. In Massachusetts, where we produce this show, five new wood-burning biomass plants are being planned.  Three of them are right here in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts, such as the Russell biomass plant – sparking a controversy.WindsoJambsStatePark2008 RussellBiomassIt’s pitting residents who fear the plant will pollute their neighborhoods and clear cut state forests against local officials, developers and the state government, which is counting on the plants to be part of its renewable energy strategy.

Bob Saul, whose company owns and manages large tracts of forests in the US and abroad, presents the “pro” point of view, and Chris Matera, who characterizes biomass plants as “forest incinerators, represents the “con” perspective.

By the way, this is not a controversy limited to Massachusetts. There are approximately 80 operating biomass power plants in 19 states across the U.S. Another 40 plants are operable, but are not currently operating.

Listen to the debate, and you decide.

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6 Responses to “Biomass — or Biomess? A Debate”

  1. Mary Serreze says:

    Excellent Show! Thanks for covering this issue.

  2. Erik Hoffner says:

    Good interview on a complex topic, thanks. I have questions about some statements made by both guests, but Bob Saul’s assertion in particular that much of the CO2 emitted by a new biomass plant such as the ones proposed in MA would be recaptured and burned left me scratching my head.

    My sense is that the proposed plant in Greenfield, and in Russell for that matter, is way too big, especially without recapturing the heat in a combined heat and power system.

    Erik Hoffner, Orion Grassroots Network

  3. Bill Baue says:

    Mary,

    Thanks so much for your kind words — and for spreading the word on this show! We got a lot of traffic that seems to have come from you.

    Best,
    Bill

  4. Bill Baue says:

    Erik,

    Thanks for your positive feedback — it carries additional weight coming from a boardmember of Co-op Power.

    We’ll reach out to Bob Saul and request elaboration on his CO2 capture and burning comment. A big catalytic converter?

    As for your co-generation comment, I imagine you’re familiar with the Brattleboro Thermal Utility that is planning on doing just that. Check it out at http://www.brattleborothermalutility.com/

    My colleague Ralph Meima, head of the Marlboro MBA in Managing for Sustainability, chairs the board, which also has on it Alex Wilson of Building Green, a former Sea Change guest.

    Best,
    Bill

  5. Erik Hoffner says:

    Thanks, Bill, yes, the B/boro proposal is better.

    The biomass plant at Middlebury College in VT, though, that’s what all such plants should shoot for.

    Erik Hoffner, Orion Grassroots Network

  6. Erik,

    Since burning wood releases more 50% CO2 per MW than coal, 70% more than oil, and 150% more than gas, how is switching to burning forests from burning fossil fuels improving anything? Since the additional logging will also negatively affect the ability of the forest to sequester carbon, I see biomass as nothing but wishful thinking that will just help us dig our deep hole even deeper.