If Done Right, Biomass Energy Could Help Combat Global Warming

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Jeff Gibbs is right to be concerned about using trees and "woody" biomass for renewable electricity. As he correctly points out, timber harvesting too often is destructive, and we need to save some dead trees and limbs to recycle nutrients and feed the soil and forest ecosystem.

That said, Gibbs jumps to the mistaken conclusion that biomass can never be worthwhile. In fact, there is a consensus among the scientists Gibbs cites that burning numerous types of biomass can reduce net carbon emissions. These types of biomass include:

  • Sustainably harvested forest residues, such as the limbs left after logging, which would emit a significant fraction of their carbon upon decay;

  • energy crops that don't crowd out food production, such as switchgrass planted on marginal lands;

  • farm wastes, such as manure and crop residues; and

  • municipal and industrial wastes.

Leading scientists agree that burning these types of biomass would not add to atmospheric carbon levels and thus would not contribute to global warming. In fact, because these low-carbon biomass sources often displace high-carbon coal, they can reduce carbon emissions significantly.

In addition to starting with the most beneficial biomass resources, we also need to ensure that we harvest woody biomass sustainably without degrading forests. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) is pressing Congress to ensure that federal policies protect critical lands, such as wilderness areas, and establish standards that prevent degradation of wildlife habitat, enhance soil productivity, and protect biodiversity when biomass is harvested.

To try to make his case, Gibbs cherry-picks the data. He cites the worst case scenario in which biomass use and agricultural expansion destroy forests. Many of the same scientists who came up with that scenario -- which they concede is extreme -- also posit another scenario in which biomass use could jump 800 percent from today's levels, make a major contribution to curbing global warming, and increase forested land at the same time. With the right policies, we can, in fact, develop beneficial biomass resources and protect forests.

Finally, besides his miscalculation of biomass' value, Gibbs erroneously dismisses the contribution that solar, wind and other renewables could make today to reliably power the grid and cut global warming pollution. Numerous assessments by the Department of Energy (DOE) and other credible agencies and organizations demonstrate that renewable energy sources are ready today to make a significant contribution. A 2008 DOE study, for example, found that wind power could provide 20 percent of U.S. electricity by 2030 with no adverse impact on reliability or the need for storage. In addition, UCS's 2009 Climate 2030 Blueprint found that if the United States adopted a suite of smart climate, energy-efficiency and renewable-energy policies, wind, solar, geothermal and biomass could provide 40 percent of the nation's electricity by 2030 and reduce electric bills across the country.

Ben Larson works on biomass policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists.