Our View: Future of wood-fired plants key energy issue
A study that says biomass plants are worse than oil is not the last word on this subject.
Studies in Massachusetts and nationally conclude that biomass -- the burning of wood and other organic matter for electricity and heat -- can make climate change worse and devastate forests. They warn that renewable energy policies at the state and federal levels ignore these risks and will worsen the threat.
Biomass defenders argue that those analyses are flawed. The critics assume widespread deforestation, rather than the practice of using wood waste left over from logging and manufacturing, limbs left from forest thinning and the use of "energy crops" such as switchgrass planted on marginal lands.
These issues are of critical importance to states and regions where timber is a prime resource, as in Maine, the Southeast and the Northwest. While our state appropriately pursues wind energy, we cannot responsibly ignore what other resources can provide to the energy grid and to the job market.
Our senators, both Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, have defended biomass and fought to include it in legislation for renewable energy, including stimulus funds and tax credits. Those provide essential assistance, as in Massachusetts, where state incentives have fueled a market for the energy produced by Maine power plants.
The larger argument about biomass and its impacts is necessary, and should be embraced. Too often these discussions get polarized, with all conflict and no cooperation. It seems to us that thorough analysis, like the study out of Massachusetts and another by the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based organization, should help guide policymakers, the public and business alike. The biomass industry needs to engage with sound studies and a goal of consensus.
The Environmental Working Group found that biomass increases the carbon dioxide emissions, which accelerate climate change, while encouraging the clearing of forests, which are one of nature's best tools to reverse climate change by capturing carbon dioxide. They called biomass a "global warming double whammy."
That isn't the final word. But it does mean that unbiased science needs to inform both government decision-making and business plans, too, to find an environmentally wise path.
If that means restrictions that require the use of wood waste and thinning -- as is the predominant practice in Maine, according to the Portland-based Biomass Power Association -- then so be it. Sound business and sound environment must coexist.