Biomass: A Key Tool in the Fight for Climate Change

Many schools in our region, such as Stevens High School in Claremont, are using biomass for heat, offsetting over a million gallons of oil each winter.

At this point it is beyond doubt, Climate Change is one of the most important problems humans will face in this century. The main goal of the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement is to keep global temperature rise below 2º Celsius, mainly by significantly reducing the amount of carbon being emitted into the atmosphere.  Everybody has ideas about how to reduce carbon emissions and most focus on switching from fossil fuels like oil, natural gas, and coal towards clean sources of energy. But while you constantly hear about wind, solar and geothermal, and sometimes and nuclear, one solution that is quite important to rural New England gets ignored:  Biomass.

Biomass is sustainable

Biomass is the world’s oldest source of power. Our ancestors were burning wood for heat, light and cooking before recorded history itself. Biomass was the most significant source of energy for mankind until the Industrial Revolution, when it was replaced first by coal, then by oil and natural gas. In many areas this was because most of the trees had been cut down and new fuel sources were needed. One hundred years ago only 20% of the land in New Hampshire was forested but today the figure is 80% and most of that is managed by professional foresters.

There is a general misconception among the environmentally conscious that wood is a bad fuel choice. Some point out that carbon is “slow in, fast out” with biomass (meaning trees absorb atmospheric carbon slowly but release it quickly when burned), so they feel it is more important to keep as many trees as possible to absorb CO2. We agree there is an urgent need to bring down our CO2 emissions and yes, a wood boiler releases about as much carbon as an oil boiler when providing the same amount of heat. But there is a big difference: biomass works within the natural carbon cycle.

Managed Forests Stay as Forests

For well over 80 years, our forests in New England have been sustainably managed for the production of lumber, paper and cordwood for heating.  That is, trees in a stand are selectively cut every few decades in a way that removes mature trees for lumber, culls out “bad” trees and makes room for smaller trees and saplings to grow larger. These forests are in a long term, continuous cycle of sustainability.

The 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that “as long as forests remain forests…long term cumulative emissions are always reduced.” This is what we have been doing in New England for a very long time.

Despite the fact that 79% of U.S. forestland is in private hands, American forest biomass has been increasing for over a hundred years. We have private ownership to thank for this. In the Northeast Region of NH, VT, MA, NY, and ME 79% of forest land is privately held—able to be cut down and developed at any time—but it is not. This is because forests have been profitable to own and to hold as sustainably managed forests.

It seems counterintuitive that cutting down trees reduces the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. But it is true.

The keys are good forestry practices, sustainable management, and a steady demand.

Environmental Economics

There are two major markets for wood from our New England forests: high-grade wood for lumber and furniture is sold at the highest prices (20-30% of the volume of a typical selective harvest) while large volumes of low-grade wood get sold for energy at much lower prices —as cordwood, wood chips and for pellets. If these markets become unprofitable, owners are often compelled to clear and develop the land. When that happens all the trees are cut down in one last harvest, threatening a century of high-quality and mutually beneficial forestry. That, we want to avoid.

During this time where the use of renewable energy is becoming urgent, we are experiencing a significantly reduced demand for low-grade wood. Why? The low price of fossil fuels. A number of wood-fired power plants have been shut down in New Hampshire recently due to the very low natural gas costs. This caused a significant shock to the market that has lowered profitability, left a lot of low-grade wood to rot in our forests, and threatens their sustainability.

Keeping a forest as a forest only makes sense to a landowner if the forest is profitable. The IPCC said it best: “In the long term, a sustainable forest management strategy aimed at maintaining or increasing forest stocks, while producing an annual sustained yield of timber, fiber or energy from the forest, will generate the largest sustained mitigation benefit.” Biomass isn’t just good for the environment, it’s critical. Therefore it is important to keep forests profitable.

American forests became carbon-negative (carbon sinks) around 1952, meaning each year they began holding more carbon than they released. How has the U.S. managed to turn its forests into carbon sinks? Forest management. For decades, American forest owners have been managing forests to ensure that they produce the most high-quality wood possible by cutting away and removing sick and dead trees and ensuring that those remaining are well spaced and healthy. This benefits the environment as well, as deadwood that would release its carbon slowly anyway is instead sold for a profit and the trees which remain can grow stronger, which means more carbon removed from the atmosphere for their growth.

This system doesn’t need adjustments; it’s already happening through private ownership, and all our laws and systems are geared towards it. The only thing that can threaten this system is if there’s not enough demand for the low-grade wood that makes up the majority of any forest’s output. Unfortunately, that’s happening now. For example, in Vermont, 22 acres of forest are cleared daily for development, with similar numbers across the Northeast. Using more biomass to heat our homes and businesses can help reverse this trend.

Keeping energy local

Natural gas is currently exploding in use. Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) allowed for a huge expansion in how much can be drilled from the earth. This gas, which is now used to heat New England’s urban areas, has to be transported via pipeline from the Midwest, and here politics has interfered. Pipelines often run into state, local, environmental, and sometimes federal opposition, depending on the party in power. On top of that, very little of the money spent on fossil fuels in New England stays here.

Biomass faces none of these issues. New England and New York are covered in well-managed forests ready to provide for our local energy needs—especially in the rural areas, no pipelines required. No outside politics can interfere. Harvesting and transportation create lots of local jobs and forest landowners make money which boosts our local economy. And biomass because is renewable it’s a win-win-win.

Support of biomass should become a regional and national energy priority, not an afterthought.

The next few decades will be revolutionary for the energy industry. There’s no question about it. What is in question is what paths that we take in the transition from fossil fuels to renewables. While the end goal is for all energy to come from solar and wind, that is unlikely to happen for decades. The wind doesn’t always blow, nor does the sun always shine. This is where biomass comes in; it’s a sustainable, renewable bridge fuel that reduces carbon output during the transition and remains as a sustainable backup for when the transition is complete.

Keeping forests as forests is smart economic and environmental policy goal for our communities, for our region and for our future.

Watch our Biomass Webcast Recordings
Thermal RECs Explained: Added Value for Heating with Biomass
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