New Research Shows Demand for Trees as Energy Source Could Outstrip Supply

Jul 14, 2010

Existing and proposed biomass plants threaten New England’s forests

Biomass energy facilities could soon be tapping wood resources in nearly every corner of New England and parts of the Northeast, according to a new map produced by The Wilderness Society. In some parts of the region, multiple facilities with overlapping “woodsheds” could exceed the capacity of forests to yield materials while still maintaining other important benefits such as clean air and water and wildlife habitat.

Aside from concerns about sustainable supply, expanded harvests of live trees to provide fuel may not help in the fight against climate change over the next few decades. Biomass has been touted as a carbon-neutral alternative fuel source to fossil fuels like coal and oil. However, the carbon-neutral label really only applies to waste wood that would rot if not used for energy, and waste sources are scarce.

“Biomass has the potential to be a fuel source in a low-carbon economy, but we need to make sure that it is done in way that doesn’t increase greenhouse gas emissions,” said Ann Ingerson, economist for The Wilderness Society. “Poorly planned biomass expansion in the Northeast could threaten forests and in some cases release more carbon than fossil fuels.”

Many biomass facilities use the leftovers from lumber mills such as sawdust and tree limbs. However, 98.5% of this waste is already being used, meaning that expansion of biomass heat and power plants will likely need to use whole trees to meet the demand.

Maps provided by The Wilderness Society show the large areas, which often overlap, that biomass would come from. Most of the land in New England is within the sourcing range of the current and proposed facilities.

“While these maps aren’t saying that every tree from Maine to Maryland is going to be clear-cut, they do show that our forests will be under increasing pressure to serve as a fuel source, and that sustainability guidelines are needed to protect water quality, sensitive sites, and wildlife needs,” said Ingerson.

A recent study by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences found that in some cases and in the short term, using biomass was actually worse than the fossil fuels it was replacing in terms of greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere.

“Using trees for a fuel source can be a renewable energy solution if done properly – but done incorrectly we would be further contributing to global warming and jeopardizing our forests,” said Ingerson.

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