Not All Bioenergy is Carbon Neutral

The Nature Conservancy is helping to protect and restore old growth forest in Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. © Chris Crisman

Biomass for Energy

Biomass — trees, woody shrubs and annual crops — can be used to produce fuels for many different purposes, including pellets for home heating, liquid transportation biofuels and electric power generation. Converting biomass to energy can be good for the environment but conversion strategies that are too aggressive can also do great damage to our climate and to nature.

Aggressive Conversion Strategies Pose Risk

But not all uses of biomass to produce energy are beneficial; not all bioenergy is carbon neutral. If a large forest area is clear-cut in the United States and converted to second home development, the result is not carbon neutral. If large areas of the Amazon forest in Brazil are cleared and converted to soybean production or cattle grazing, the result is not carbon neutral. If the tropical forests of South Asia growing on peatlands are burned away to make room for palm oil plantations to supply biofuels markets, the result is a climate catastrophe. Contrary to a new policy announced by the Administrator of EPA this week, no use of biomass to make energy should be assumed carbon neutral; every use must be carefully assessed.

At Ellsworth Creek Preserve in Washington state, TNC is working with Willapa National Wildlife Refuge to preserve old-growth forests, including thinning young trees to create space for the remaining trees to grow into temperate rainforest giants. © Chris Crisman

Biomass Is a Goldilocks Fuel

Bioenergy requires tremendous land areas for the energy it provides. It is not an efficient way to convert sunlight into power. Producing biofuels from soybeans may require a land area 1000 times greater than the land needed to produce the same amount of energy in diesel fuels from wells that yield petroleum. Producing power from solar or wind energy sources need one hundredth of the land area to produce the same kWh of power from burning forest materials. On the other hand, using certain biomass resources such as mill residues, harvest slash and small trees from ecosystem restoration projects may support environmental benefits that wind and solar energy cannot provide.

Through the Grasslands for BioEnergy Initiative, prairie-based biomass (plant matter) is baled and can be turned into electricity, or made into pellets to heat homes and businesses. The project aims to demonstrate how prairies can be a source of renewable and sustainable energy while conserving habitat, improving water quality, and mitigating climate change. © The Nature Conservancy (Michelle Kalantari)

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Mark Tercek

Mark Tercek

Former CEO of The Nature Conservancy CEO. “Nature’s Fortune” author. Family man, yogi, ice climber, vegan.