Thoughts on the Moomaw/Booth Biomass Talk – Sustainability

Thoughts on the Moomaw/Booth Biomass Talk

February 14, 2011

On February 10th, Professor William Moomaw, Tufts University and Mary Booth, Massachusetts Energy Alliance shared their thoughts on using woody biomass for electricity production to a packed house in the Paresky Center.

Bill described how forests provide us with several usefull services: biodiversity, water quality and flood control, carbon sequestration, air quality, timber, soil production and erosion control. Using large amounts of forest wood will compete with some of these services and reduce the ability of our forest reserves to enhance our environments. (Prof. Moomaw’s presentation is available here: BillMoomaw-Biomass.)

Mary Booth, elaborated on some calculations of carbon generated from burning whole logs for energy production citing the Manomet report and shared concerns over proposed regulations for air emissions. (Her presentation is available here: Mary-Booth-Biomass)

The Moomaw/Booth talk prompted me to consider further the complexities and challenges of incorporating biomass energy into carbon reduction plans.

We are getting more sophisticated in our understanding of carbon calculations. Previously, many of us assumed that since biomass material can be regrown, we could assume that using bio-fuels could be considered carbon neutral. Plants absorb carbon while growing and release carbon when burned.

While this statement is true we need to ensure that we balance the growth and consumption cycles. This means that efficient energy generation facilities need to be developed – most likely ones that produce heat and use any waste heat to generate electricity. In addition, we need to employ state of the art technology to reduce air emissions including particulate, metals and other contaminants; the carbon cycle of emissions need to be accurately assessed regardless of the fuel used, and consideration of the full environmental impact from harvest or extraction, through delivery and production to final disposal needs to be determined.

Currently, in the US only 8% of the 95 Quadrillion BTUs used annually come from renewable sources; and biomass and biofuels make up 45% of the those renewables (Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration). We are all hopeful that truly clean and renewable energy sources will be sufficiently available in the near future and that we reduce our demand for energy.

In the meantime, lets consider how we can most effectively employ some ‘transitional’ fuels like natural gas, or biofuels, and woody biomass to reduce our dependence on depleting fossil fuels and to minimize our carbon footprint.

Moomaw – Booth Lecture: Should We Get Our Electricity by Burning Trees? was sponsored by the Williams College Center for Environmental Studies, Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives and Public Affairs.

More info on biomass and recent press releases are available at the CES website.

See announcement:

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