How Biomass Is My Valley? Could Bio-Energy Be Worse Than Fossil Fuels?

Ontario’s recently-tabled Long-Term Energy Plan confirms the Liberal government’s commitment to both nuclear power and renewable sourcing of new electricity — with price offers and open grids that invite some 11000 megawatts of green power.

That’s more than enough to allow the province to go coal-free within ten years — a big break for clean air, climate protection, and local jobs thanks to homegrown energy that will replace energy imported coal.
Supporters of renewable energy have cause to celebrate. But for all the bright lights from clean energy, at least one flashing orange light is warranted. The government media release refers to new hydro power from better engineering around waterfalls, as well as “wind, solar and bioenergy” sources. The most obvious example of bioenergy will be the old coal plant in Atikokan, situated in the heart of logging country in northwestern Ontario; henceforth, that plant will burn wood chips, an above-ground biological product.
Bioenergy, also known as biomass, has recently become the most controversial sector in the broad field categorized as renewable energy. Over the next few years, it’s likely to become the hottest issue in relations between the Global North and South, where most of the world’s biomass is and where it grows most quickly.

The bio-mass debate not only impacts on alternative energy decisions; it triggers militant denunciations from many people involved in the global food and bio-diversity movements, which fear energy crops will take a hue bite out of both foodlands and wilderness. In Ontario, a little corner of the world where people are trying to set a standard for doing energy right, there’s a need to clear the air around bioenergy.

It’s a difficult issue for me because I’ve championed energy, plastics and building materials made from biomass for almost 20 years. For most of that time, people who talked about biomass meant rotting food that could be converted to biodiesel or methane, deep-rooted grasses that could be part of healing degraded lands, crop wastes, such as straw, that could be used for insulated building blocks, bulky hemp stems used for paper or plastic, and so on. I’ve seen biomass as a way to provide extra green revenues to support local and enviro-conscious farmers and waste recyclers

On November 26, I squirmed through a public lecture from Jim Thomas, author of The New Biomasters: Synthetic Biology and the Next Assault on Biodiversity and Livelihoods. Thomas was first on a panel providing the big global picture to open the biannual conference of Food Secure Canada in Montreal.

While greens have been raising alarm about global warming and peak oil, energy, chemical and packaging companies have been preparing for the next all-purpose industrial feedstock to replace oil, gas and coal. Unlike fossil fuels which come from below ground, the new feedstocks grow above ground with green leaves and a green cachet. Plants and trees supply cellulose and carbon, just as fossil fuels do, so switching over to “green carbon” provides a technical fix to sourcing carbon rather than a social and political cure to carbon addiction, Thomas argued.

The switch is done most easily with electricity production, which explains why energy, rather than transport fuel or plastics, offers “the beginning of a grab on that above-ground green carbon,” he says.
Atikokan woodchips will whet the appetite for more trees to supply what coal once supplied, Thomas argued during a telephone interview with NOW, since huge power plants that simply substitute wood for coal offer the most feasible way to supply massive amounts of electric power for heavy industry. Thomas forecasts that in a decade the world will be using 20 billion tonnes of wood chips and pellets, creating a $65 billion a year industry, earning money by selling electricity and collecting carbon credits for their “green” fuel.
Humans now use a quarter of 230 billion tones of biomass produced on the earth each year, leaving the rest for wild animals and all the ecosystem functions that grasses, trees, algae and seaweed perform in terms of storing carbon, pumping out oxygen and the like. The bioenergy economy means opening up that three-quarters of the world’s biomass for one species, humans, and one portion of that species, the portion hooked to a high-consuming lifestyle.

The claim that this switch in feedstocks is in any way green, renewable or “carbon-neutral” rests on two pieces of deceit, says Thomas. One is that an old plant burned equals a new plant born. It takes one minute to burn a tree that took 80 years to grow and will take 80 years to replace in terms of carbon storage, he stresses. That stretches any meaning of renewable or carbon neutral, he argues, especially when 80 years is a long time for a planet on a strict deadline to prevent runaway global warming.

To aid in the deceit, international accounting methods that measure greenhouse gas emissions count the carbon dioxide released when the root systems of forests are unearthed as emissions due to deforestration, not as part and parcel of the biomass industry. As a result, a major source of global warming emissions disappears from the biomass equation, without, unfortunately, disappearing from reality.

The shift in energy resources has already resulted in mass purchasing by corporations and national governments of some 50 million hectares of land in tropical areas such as southern Africa. These lands have been removed from wilderness, where they were crucial for biodiversity, or taken from peasants who used the land to produce food, Thomas argues in his book.

Ontario Green Party leader Mike Schreiner says the main problem in Ontario does not lie with biomass itself, but by the lack of regulations ensuring these resources are managed on a local scale by family farms and local waste management operations. Cow manure converted to methane and burned for electricity on the farm is renewable, and perhaps better than carbon-neutral, he tells NOW.

Thomas told me he agrees that “scale is absolutely key, and that small scale can be sustainable.” But today’s reality is that large centralized plants producing huge volumes dominate. Is there a green option for any of these industries? “That’s a good question,” Thomas says.

adapted from the original in NOW Magazine,December 9-15, 2010; please see


  1. Walt Palmer says:

    Great Article.

    I think that the use of bioenergy is inevitable; we have to stop using mineral sources and not all energy requirements are easily served by things like wind and solar. Transportation is a case in point: No matter what we do, it will be many decades before we do not need portable liquid fuels for such things as road transport, marine shipping and airplanes … no plug-in hybrid aircraft on the horizon!

    We should focus on parts of our economy that really need alternative fuels and explore real 21st century options. Wood chips for electric power? I don’t see it.

    Here’s a goal for government spending in alternative fuels research: Sustainability; liquid fuel for sectors that absolutely need it, produced without any land use change, without any depletion of fresh water, without any fossil fuel energy or fertilizer inputs, and in a way that is socially responsible.

    Tough goal? Yes. The later we start, the longer it takes.

  2. Great article! Absolutely right that “scale” is indeed the trump card that will determine whether our future is sustainable or not.

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