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article imageLatest Greenpeace study underlines problems of biomass energy

By Andrew Reeves     Nov 3, 2011 in Environment
Ottawa - The latest report from Greenpeace Canada is arguing the dangers of using biomass on an industrial scale for heating and generating electricity far outweigh the potential benefits.
Fueling a Biomess, the latest report from Greenpeace Canada, is arguing that the recent popularity of biomass as an energy source has outgrown its original design, and now threatens Canada's forests and their ability to help stop climate change.
"Provincial governments are transforming public forests into a major energy source without fully informing the Canadian public," the report states.
Biomass was initially intended as a way to generate power by using wood scrap (bark, wood chips, and sawdust, most often) left over from logging mills and paper plants. On a small scale, it was an ideal way to utilize a waste material while generating heat or power from a material that would otherwise have been squandered.
“Using woody biomass to produce energy should be restricted to local small-scale uses of mill residues,” said Nicolas Mainville, a Greenpeace Canada forest campaigner and the author of the report, in the Globe and Mail.
But as the industry has grown over the past few years, the popularity of biomass as an energy source has overtaken its original purpose: no longer about burning scrap wood, Greenpeace believes that the desire for biomass-produced energy is leading many companies to cut down forests simply to produce heat or electricity on an industrial-scale.
"Forest bioenergy once referred to a sensible, small-scale and local solution to produce heat and power by using mill and pulp residues at the plant," the report claims. "This is no longer the case."
On their website, Greenpeace states that,
“Forest bioenergy, as it is currently being developed in Canada threatens the health of our forests and will harm the global climate for decades to come. The amount of wood being burnt in power plants or turned into liquid fuels is growing exponentially without the public's knowledge and little government oversight or regulation.”
Especially troubling is the finding that Canadian biomass exports to Europe have increased roughly 700 per cent in the past eight years. And in Nova Scotia, for example, a province on Canada's east coast and well positioned for biomass shipments to Europe, logging specifically for the purposes of biomass export has begun.
Mark Hubert of the Forest Products Association of Canada, which represents about two-thirds of the industry, spoke with CTV and claimed that "there may be a need for government to consider the issue" of biomass regulation.
Hubert argues that most in the industry believe that biomass generators should continue to burn waste material exclusively, although there is some debate over what constitutes "waste material." That wood scrap and sawdust are waste material is beyond question, but what about forests ravaged by disease, or fire? Are the remnants of burned forests "waste material," despite their continued importance to the health of the forest ecosystem?
"That word 'waste' being used by government and industry is actually standing trees, healthy forest, burned area, diseased areas and logging debris," Mainville told CTV.
"It's much more complex than just wiping out the whole pine beetle areas."
The report also states that government assertions aside, the process of cutting down a tree to burn as biomass to generate industrial-scale electricity is anything but carbon neutral. Above and beyond the fossil fuels burned in the extraction and processing of trees by heavy machinery, there is also the carbon-storage capacity lost in cutting down the tree.
And while provincial and federal governments claim that the carbon-storage capacity is replaced by the planting of new trees, it takes decades for a tree to reach maturity where it is capturing and storing the equivalent level of carbon dioxide of the previous tree cut down.
"This is a huge accounting error" on the part of the federal government, Mainville argues.
The wild west of biomass power generation needs considerable re-examination by provincial and federal governments to avoid further damage to Canada's forest ecosystems and carbon-sequestering capabilities.
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