Mainers who care about logging and forestry and our local economy should appreciate the steadfast support by Sen. Susan Collins and Sen. Angus King for biomass power. A recent column by Mitch Lansky (“Senators wrong on biomass,” Jan. 13) criticized the two senators for their sponsorship of legislation — an amendment to the failed energy bill from the last Congress — that would recognize the carbon benefits of using forest residues as fuel for clean electricity. We feel strongly that a response is necessary.
The debate over biomass electricity is being fueled by two major misconceptions.
The first is that generating electricity using biomass means forests will be cut down for power generation. That is false. Economically, logging for power would never make sense. The reality is that the vast majority of biomass used to generate power in Maine is waste wood — sawdust and slabs from sawmills, bark, limbs, and tops chipped from logging operations. Not burning it in biomass plants means that waste will either go to landfills or be left to rot on the forest floor and release harmful methane.
The second misconception is that in the fight to limit carbon emissions, burning biomass is a worse power generation option than so-called “clean” fossil fuels like natural gas. This is also false, and here’s why. Trees recycle carbon that is already in the atmosphere, releasing it as they rot or burn and then recapturing it as new trees grow. As long as forests are managed to regenerate, biomass is carbon neutral. That makes it superior to any fossil fuel when it comes to carbon, since all such fuels release carbon captured millions of years ago into the modern atmosphere, increasing total atmospheric carbon levels.
Scientists nearly universally accept the materials we use for fuel as carbon beneficial. The National Association of University Forest Resource Programs, which represents 80 of the country’s universities with programs devoted to forest resources, along with more than 100 of their faculty experts, sent a letter to the EPA declaring this very fact.
Lansky also pointed out that the primary reasons why biomass energy is not carbon neutral is because of the equipment utilized to harvest and transport forest products and because there are no regulations in place to regulate harvesting.
We find this opinion to be quite naïve. It’s like stating that solar panels and wind turbines appear out of thin air and there is no energy utilized in their manufacturing, transportation or installation processes. Lansky also conspicuously forgot that the state of Maine has a Forest Practices Act that regulates timber harvesting and limits what can be removed during harvesting operations.
We agree with the author that maximizing the use of biomass should include using the heat generated from biomass power plants. We would welcome a plan to encourage co-location of warehouses, manufacturing and large heat-using facilities with biomass plants, or to use this heat in other ways. However, while we work with the state of Maine and federal government on such a plan it’s imperative to keep these biomass facilities up and running in the face of low power prices and even lower fossil fuel rates.
With respect to markets for forest products, even cross-laminated timbers — which use small-diameter wood to manufacture a durable building material — produce wood “leftovers” with little value. Biomass power facilities purchase these leftovers from a forest harvest or forest product manufacturer. Loggers and landowners and sawmills value the extra benefit they get from being able to sell otherwise unusable wood fibers.
The revenue brought in by selling this biomass is part of the business plan of virtually every logger and sawmill in Maine, and as their operational costs have increased they have come to depend on it. Take that revenue away and many sawmills and logging companies will shed jobs or close entirely, but that is just the beginning.
The biomass market serves another vital need in the forest products industry, and that is the disposal of low-value wood. Without it, loggers and sawmills are left with literally millions of tons of sawdust, chips, limbs, and tops with nowhere to go. This presents an environmental and landfill challenge that no one wants to deal with, and it creates additional disposal costs that Maine’s struggling forest products businesses are ill-equipped to absorb.
Finally, biomass is produced here, harvested here, and often consumed here. As a fuel for heating and power generation, it is an option far superior economically to a fossil fuel like heating oil, of which 78 cents of every dollar spent leaves the region, according to one U.S. Energy Information Agency estimate.
Biomass is Maine-made clean energy that absolutely helps Mainers in the forest industry make ends meet. Policies that benefit biomass, such as the carbon amendment proposed by our senators, benefit Maine.
Dana Doran is executive director of the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine. Bob Cleaves is president and CEO of the Biomass Power Association. Jeremy Payne is executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association.