The Burning Question: Is Biomass Right for the Northeast?

The Burning Question: Is Biomass Right for the Northeast?

Photo courtesy of Biomass Energy Resource Center

Like a forest fire that appears to be contained before exploding into an inferno, biomass has gone from being a topic of interest primarily to foresters and energy experts to one that can draw hundreds of citizens, many with competing views, to public meetings and online forums. Massachusetts, where government officials are studying the implications of biomass before permitting any more power plants, is at the center of the blaze, whose flames have been fanned by competing and contradictory reports. Several studies promote biomass as a great opportunity for kicking the fossil habit, but the one grabbing headlines suggests that burning biomass can be worse than burning coal.

In energy circles, biomass means burning plants for energy. Here in the Northeast, that means burning wood: cordwood for the stove, pellets for the furnace, or chips for the local school or power plant. Most of this wood comes from our forests, but some comes from building demolition, landscaping debris, and suburban tree pruning. Still more of it could come from trees planted deliberately on agricultural lands.

Advocates for biomass energy in the Northeast see wood as a renewable resource that can be burned cleanly and efficiently while reducing global warming emissions, freeing ourselves from the uncertainty of the global fossil fuel market, and keeping billions of dollars here in the Northeast’s economy. As an added bonus, advocates believe that a robust market for biomass would strengthen land conservation by providing an income stream for forest landowners, allowing them to practice better forestry and resist the temptation to sell out to development. At the end of the day, advocates see cleaner fuel, healthier forests, and a stronger economy.

Biomass skeptics dispute many aspects of this vision. They cite the study commissioned by Massachusetts and conducted by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, which suggested that under some circumstances, burning wood does nothing to combat global warming. Many skeptics also fear the results of a forest-products industry turned loose on the landscape under a biomass gold rush. Wood may be renewable, they argue, but that doesn’t change the fact that we have a long track record of using it nonrenewably.

Is it possible to reconcile these two points of view? Is biomass green? If so, is there enough biomass in the Northeast to go around?

Is it green?

The received wisdom is that biomass is an effective weapon in the fight against climate change. When a tree dies, it emits carbon, whether it’s burned or just left to rot on the ground, part of what’s commonly called the biological carbon cycle. Burning wood is considered carbon-friendly, as long as new trees are allowed to grow and offset the carbon that’s released from the trees they’re replacing.

Fossil fuels, on the other hand, are never carbon-friendly, as burning them introduces additional carbon into the atmosphere that wasn’t part of the biological carbon cycle in the first place. This point of view has been repeatedly emphasized by the Environmental Protection Agency and the United Nations-sponsored International Panel on Climate Change

This received wisdom was stood on its head in May, when the Manomet report, Biomass Sustainability and Carbon Policy Study, was glossed by the media under the Associated Press headline: “Study: Wood Worse Polluter Than Coal.” While many aspects of the Manomet report have been less controversial, especially the emphasis on using biomass for thermal energy instead of electricity (to achieve higher efficiencies) and the proposals for tighter harvesting guidelines to ensure sustainability in the woods, the “wood worse than coal” emphasis has been met with incredulity, because it stands the fundamental scientific basis of climate change on its head.

As the report indicates, wood is less energy-dense than fossil fuel, meaning that a chunk of firewood contains less energy than a corresponding chunk of coal, assuming the same number of carbon atoms in both. As a result, more carbon is emitted per BTU or kWh produced.

“People are getting tangled up in this one aspect of carbon that is not key,” says Bill Keeton at the University of Vermont’s Carbon Dynamics Lab. “It’s one big carbon cycle, and the important point is the overall carbon balance: how much is in the atmosphere, how much in the oceans, how much is in marine algae, etc., and how much is being added by fossil fuel.”

Research under way by Keeton and his graduate students suggests that greatly expanded biomass harvests could accelerate the rate at which carbon moves between the forest and the atmosphere, resulting in a net addition of carbon to the atmosphere, sort of the way a juggler ends up with proportionally more balls aloft if he speeds up his hands. But these are small considerations in the face of the problem caused by fossil fuel emissions.

The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from 275 parts per million (ppm) in the preindustrial age to 390 ppm today. Of that rise, the International Panel on Climate Change estimates that only 15–20 percent has come from the biosphere, primarily from converting forests and open lands to human development. The rest of the increase, which is to say 80–85 percent of the problem, comes from the combustion of fossil fuels. The fact that biomass is not purely carbon-neutral under every circumstance only underscores the fact that fossil fuel is 100 percent carbon-additive under all circumstances.

The Burning Question: Is Biomass Right for the Northeast? Image

Image courtesy of MBC Design

But what about sustainability?

There is a growing awareness among foresters and biologists of the crucial role played by coarse woody debris in the forest: standing snags, fallen logs, and limbs and tops left behind following a logging job. In short, just the sort of material that’s easily chipped for biomass.

The Forest Guild, a national association of foresters dedicated to ecological forestry and a partner in the forest-sustainability chapter of the Manomet report, has addressed this question directly in their recently released Forest Biomass Retention and Harvesting Guidelines for the Northeast. Generally speaking, the guidelines recommend avoiding sensitive sites and old-growth stands, leaving a quarter to a third of all slash on site after a biomass harvest, and maintaining a diverse forest structure with plenty of snags and coarse woody debris distributed across the harvested area.

“But it’s very site-specific,” points out Bob Perschel of the Forest Guild, adding, “nothing applies to every acre. Soil types are the basis for our recommendations. Some sites are so sensitive that you don’t want to harvest there at all. At the other end of the spectrum, on the rich-soil sites, the science shows that if you do leave a certain percentage of the tops and slash, you’re going to be okay.”

The Burning Question: Is Biomass Right for the Northeast? Image

Photo by Jim Block

There’s wood in them thar hills. Or is there?

Given that biomass can be green, how much of it might there be in the Northeast? Is there enough biomass to go around, or will we have to denude our hillsides in order to forestall climate change?

The answer to these questions is not straightforward, because we already value our forests for many reasons beyond their capacity to produce biomass.

In theory, our Northeast forests produce roughly 55 million green tons of new growth every year, or an average of one ton (or half a cord) per acre per year on each of our 55 million forested acres. If we burned all of that annual growth – the interest, not the principal – for heating, we would produce roughly 1.40 quadrillion BTUs per year, or enough energy to heat two-thirds of all the houses and businesses in New England and New York.

In reality, only Maine cuts anywhere near its annual tree growth each year: roughly 98 percent, according to the Maine Forest Service. The other Northeast states’ percentages of use are 76 for New York, 50 for Vermont, 42 for New Hampshire, 30 for Connecticut, 30 for Rhode Island, and 25 for Massachusetts. And of the acres that are harvested, the majority of the tonnage goes to sawlogs and pulpwood, not biomass energy. In the four Northern Forest states (northern New England and New York), about 25 percent of the harvest these days goes to firewood and chips. Assuming the same percentage for the southern New England states, we are presently consuming about 8 million green tons of wood each year for biomass energy in New England and New York, or about 15 percent of the total annual tree growth.

What do these numbers mean in context? Heating a typical home requires four to five cords of wood per year, which is the equivalent of 8–10 tons of green biomass. A school requires between 200 and 1,000 tons per year, depending on size. Electricity-generating plants use about 10,000 tons per year per rated megawatt at full capacity. The Pinetree station in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, at 17 MW, uses 180,000 tons per year; the 50-MW Schiller station in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, uses 500,000 tons per year at full capacity. How much wood is there in a chip truck headed for one of these plants? Between 20 and 40 tons, or enough to heat several houses for a year or fire Pinetree-Fitchburg for an hour and a half.

But though we are surrounded by forest, not all of it is available for use. Brett Butler, of the U.S. Forest Service’s Family Forest Research Center, points out that, by and large, the constraints on biomass harvesting in the Northeast are less physical (steep slopes, wet soils) than they are social (zoning regulations, landowner intentions.) “It’s really landowner attitudes that have a huge, huge impact on availability,” says Butler. “You can tell a procurement forester that there’s wood out there, and they’ll tell you, ‘Sure, it may be out there, but I can’t get to it.’”

The Burning Question: Is Biomass Right for the Northeast? Image

Photo by Andrew Crosier

Butler’s research focuses on forestland owned by private, nonindustrial, unincorporated owners, which, according to Butler’s analysis of Forest Inventory Analysis data, accounts for 55 percent of all the wood growing in the Northeast. (The public owns 25 percent of all the wood, and corporations own the remaining 20 percent.) If you discount physical factors, like trees growing on slopes steeper than 50 percent, on wet soils, on poorly productive sites, or in small stands, you reduce your wood availability from these private lands by about 8 percent. If you discount social factors, such as wood unlikely to be harvested because it’s growing on parcels less than 20 acres in size, more than a mile from an existing road, closer than 100 feet to a water body, or in heavily populated areas, you remove another 10 percent. But that still leaves you with more than 80 percent available, until you factor in the most important variable of all, the “harvesting likelihood index”, which is the attitude of landowners toward forest management. This knocks out more than half of what’s left, leaving, in Butler’s equation, about 38 percent still in play.

The harvesting likelihood index is derived from answers that landowners provide on the National Woodland Owner Survey (conducted by the Forest Service) to three questions: “have you harvested wood in the past?”, “do you plan to harvest wood in the future?”, and “is timber harvesting important to you?”. “If a landowner answers yes to all three, we count that wood as most likely available,” explains Butler. “If no to all three, there’s still a chance, but it’s relatively unlikely to be harvested.”

Butler adds that his research focuses entirely on the supply of wood and not the demand. “This is a snapshot of landowner attitudes today. If prices change, attitudes could, too. I think about my house. Is it for sale? No. But if someone offers me two million? Well, here are the keys.” Predicting future biomass supply turns out to be more of a sociological exercise than a silvicultural one. If the overwhelming majority of private forestland owners were to come to view biomass production favorably, the supply of biomass would double.

Seeing the forest beyond the trees

A recent report by the newly formed Biomass Thermal Energy Council (BTEC), Heating the Northeast with Renewable Biomass: A Vision for 2025, finds that 25 percent of the Northeast’s heating needs could be met by biomass in the year 2025 without the need for new technology or a radical increase in forest harvesting. Currently, about 4 percent of the region’s heat is so produced.

Of the 55 million green tons of annual growth in our forests, the BTEC report estimates that 17 million are currently in no-cut reserves or otherwise unsuitable for harvesting, 15 million are going to pulp and paper, and 8 million are going to sawlogs. That leaves 15 million green tons available for biomass.

But the report also looks at the relatively underutilized agricultural lands of the region and sees a larger resource: farmers growing dedicated energy crops like willow on these marginal fields and pastures could produce more than 23 million green tons of biomass per year by 2025, assuming that 25 percent of such lands were utilized. That’s more biomass than would come from the forest. Adding this sum to the 15 million tons available from the forest, and cutting the combined total in half to be on the safe side, yields 19 million tons of biomass per year, or enough to produce 25 percent of the region’s heat.

“The agricultural resource is still pretty theoretical at this point,” says Charlie Niebling, chair of the BTEC and general manager of New England Wood Pellet in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. “But you look 15 years down the road, and you have to think that the agro-energy piece is going to be important, especially in New York State.” Willow grown on farm fields is part of a much larger potential biomass resource than just what comes from the forest, including wood construction debris, shipping pallets, and suburban yard waste, among others. From a carbon-neutrality perspective, burning these fuels is doubly effective because they displace fossil fuel emissions and utilize carbon that was headed for the atmosphere already.

As in Brett Butler’s research, the supply numbers presented by Niebling and others in Heating the Northeast are heavily dependent on social factors. Pulpwood, for example, is assumed to consume about as much annual growth in 2025 as it does now. But what if the paper industry continues to decline as it has over the past decade? Moving pulpwood into the energy column would triple the forest-based supply estimated in the report. “Our goal is to create a picture of what could happen,” says Niebling, “and see if we can generate some enthusiasm. We think people will be more optimistic and confident, especially in the private sector, as they start to picture how it could work out.”

If this vision were to be accomplished, the gains would be more than environmental. Some $4.5 billion that is presently being sent out of the region each year to purchase fossil fuel for heat would remain in the local economy, and 140,000 new jobs would be created.

The Burning Question: Is Biomass Right for the Northeast? Image

Generating heat, not light

It’s this combination of environmental, economic, and social benefits that is driving the enthusiasm for biomass in the Northeast. Though Heating the Northeast was prepared by pro-biomass advocacy groups like the Maine Pellet Fuels Association and the New York Biomass Energy Alliance, the general concept of seeing biomass as a solution to multiple problems has wide backing. A series of listening sessions was held in Vermont this past summer to gauge public interest in biomass energy. The list of sponsoring organizations is not the usual cast of pro-harvest characters: the Sierra Club, the Vermont Natural Resources Council, the Forest Guild, the Biomass Energy Resource Center, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund. While the groups collectively were not calling for specific targets, they were unanimous in agreeing that expanded use of biomass should be explored.

Andrea Colnes of the Biomass Energy Resource Center, one of the sponsoring organizations, put it this way. “We have a very large, resilient forest that is mostly in management and largely unfragmented. Along with this abundant resource, we have a significant thermal load, and we use a disproportionate amount of the nation’s home heating oil. Bringing these two factors together is very favorable for biomass use here in the Northeast.”

Though much of the recent flap over biomass in Massachusetts has focused on proposals to burn biomass to generate electricity, the real potential for biomass, many proponents feel, is to burn it for heat. Or, even better, for heat and power combined. That’s because burning biomass, whether in a home boiler or on a commercial scale, produces heat nearly as efficiently as any fossil fuel option, between 70 and 80 percent.

That’s not true in a stand-alone electricity plant, where biomass efficiencies are roughly 20–25 percent compared with up to 35 percent for fossil fuels. “We have a limited supply of wood in the Northeast,” says Colnes, “so it makes sense to use it as efficiently as possible. And that means using it for heat.”

How might that work? The ideal scenario is a combined heat and power facility, sometimes referred to as a cogeneration plant, in which biomass is burned to simultaneously generate electricity and provide heat to nearby buildings or communities. Small towns, large commercial facilities, and college campuses are likely locations for such facilities. Middlebury College, in Vermont, presently generates about a fifth of its electricity and heat through such a biomass-fired facility. Many other institutions across the region also use cogeneration, though most are currently fired with fossil fuel.

But cogeneration has limited applicability. For one thing, most people in the rural Northeast live in individual houses spread too far apart across the landscape to be efficiently heated from a central facility. For another, siting new cogeneration plants in existing downtowns is sure to face tough zoning and public-relations battles. But pellet-burning stoves or furnaces in individual houses is an easier sell.

“It all comes down to scale and efficiency,” says Niebling. “We need to right-size this technology to the nature of our communities. So far, our policy has been all about subsidizing big [power plants], but I’m encouraged that this is changing and that we’re really starting to talk about making decisions that are right for the scale of our homes and communities.”

Niebling points to three barriers standing in the way of wider use of biomass for heat: the cost of new boilers and furnaces (“we’re not talking about your grandfather’s creaky woodstove – these are advanced, super-clean wood appliances”), the logistics of fuel distribution (“there’s not the economy of scale yet”), and public policy that favors other renewables (“we need to bring parity to heating compared with electricity and transportation.”)

Someone with first-hand experience with the homeowner scale is Carrol Lucas, owner of Harris Energy in Littleton, New Hampshire. Lucas added pellet delivery to the eight-town region he serves just north of Franconia Notch. “I got tired of calling up my heating oil customers, asking them why they weren’t buying as much oil anymore, and hearing that they’d switched to pellets,” he says. Lucas sold 725 tons last year, the first year he offered pellets alongside heating oil and kerosene. But that’s in comparison to the more than 700,000 gallons of heating oil he also sold.

“You’ve got your dollar-minded people who see that they’re getting more BTUs from pellets than from heating oil. And you have the people who are tired of being held hostage to foreign oil,” says Lucas. Logistically, he finds that selling pellets is no more difficult than selling heating oil and that the main obstacle to wider biomass use is the fluctuating price of oil. “It’s going to take higher oil prices and things like what’s going on in the Gulf of Mexico before more people say, enough.”

The Burning Question: Is Biomass Right for the Northeast? Image

Photo courtesy of the Biomass Energy Resource Center

A two-fer

Ultimately, where you come out on the biomass question may well depend on where you went in. If you’re inclined at the outset to think that one of the gravest dangers our forests face is being clear-cut, and if you think that the forest products industry is only recently starting to behave itself after decades or centuries of overzealousness, you’re liable to see expanded biomass as just the latest excuse for exploiting our woods. On the other hand, if your primary concern is finding local alternatives to fossil fuels, and if you think that the gravest danger facing our forests is not over-harvesting but rather subdividing to pay the tax bill, then you’re apt to view biomass as something of a silver bullet.

As is so often the case, first-hand experience can be more influential than any number of expert studies. If you’ve ever lived in close proximity to an outdoor wood boiler, you’re likely to have great difficulty imagining biomass as a green technology. If your primary time spent in the woods is in national parks and other no-cut forests, you’re less likely to see the benefits of early successional habitat or the value of timber revenue to a forest landowner. On the other hand, if you yourself own land that’s been successfully logged, or if you’ve participated in the wood-based economy and seen all the ways that it can work well, you might have trouble having patience for those who would rather trade all those immediate benefits for the obvious harm that comes out of, say, an oil well in the Gulf of Mexico.

Every form of energy available to us in the Northeast comes with drawbacks: fossil fuels cause global warming; nuclear power creates toxic waste; hydroelectric requires extensive modification of riparian ecosystems; wind is intermittent and hard to site; solar is intermittent and capital-intensive. Even conservation, number one on most people’s list, is capital-intensive and requires materials (foam, calk, insulation, new appliances) that are not, by and large, made in the Northeast.

“The advantages of biomass are about much more than just carbon,” says Andrea Colnes. “There’s the rural economy piece, the forest management piece, the idea of keeping dollars local. Only biomass gives us the option of creating a closed-loop, local heating economy.”

If a regulatory framework is put in place to mandate clean emissions, require high efficiencies, and ensure sustainable forest management – a big if, certainly, but not one that would require new or theoretical technology – the secondary benefits of biomass are considerable. Biomass is our fuel. It grows here, unaided, in one of the world’s great temperate forests. The money and jobs created by utilizing biomass, therefore, also remain here: billions of dollars annually and hundreds of thousands of new jobs.

And these new monies and new jobs go into the woods, supporting the side of the economy that has a stake in keeping the woods as woods and not in converting them to housing and other development. “Biomass alone won’t stop development,” says Bob Perschel of the Forest Guild, “only good policies will do that. But biomass can provide options and money in support of good management, which helps keep forests as forests.” Far from pitting global warming against deforestation, the thoughtful use of biomass offers a chance to combat climate change and deforestation simultaneously.

The Burning Question: Is Biomass Right for the Northeast? Image

Further reading

Biomass Sustainability and Carbon Policy Study, by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, can be found at

Heating the Northeast with Renewable Biomass: A Vision for 2025, by the Biomass Thermal Energy Council, is available at

Forest Biomass Retention and Harvesting Guidelines for the Northeast, by the Forest Guild, is at

A copy of Brett Butler’s Biophysical vs. Social Availability of Woody Biomass is at A final version of his paper is currently in publication.

Northern Forest Biomass Energy Action Plan, from the Biomass Energy Resource Center, can be found at

Chuck Wooster is Associate Editor of Northern Woodlands.

  1. Ted Cady → in Warwick, MA
    Aug 31, 2010

    Being an observer of the biomass discussion in Massachusetts, it is nice, and rare, to read a relatively unbiased article about biomass utilization in Massachusetts.

    The Manomet Study is a remarkable document for something done in 6 months. Since it came out, there have been substantive comments made as part of the public record and it appears these comments will considered and lead to Manomet Study Volume 2.

    In Massachusetts, home fuelwood could be a significant factor in the biomass debate.  During the height of the Arab Oil Embargo during the Winter of ‘78-‘79, a New England Fuelwood Survey was done.  The results in Mass. were summarized in Heating with Wood in Massachusetts Households published in l980.  It was based on over 2,800 phone calls.  It found that over 1,000,000 cords were burned.  Using the conversion factor of 2.5 green tons per cord, this converts to 2,500,000 green tons.  Sixty-two percent of this wood was self-cut, over 86% of that was hardwoods, and 65% of respondents cut the wood on their own woodlot.  The bulk of self-cut wood (69%) came from woodlots of 25 acres or less (and probably some commercially sold firewood also came from small woodlots).  The survey found fuelwood use saved 40% more home heating oil consumption than should have been the case.  They attributed it to the “Zone Heating Effect” and the “Timed Thermostat Effect.”  Most wood was burned in wood stoves.  The Zone Heating Effect was when the stove heated up the area around it and other parts of the house were much colder.  The Timed Thermostat Effect was that at night and when folks were not home, the fire would die down and the house would get much cooler.  Note that in those days, programmable thermostats were not common.  The net result of these two effects is that wood stoves (relative to replacing oil heat) can have “efficiencies” of greater than 100% in replacing home heating oil. We should not be surprised, if similar circumstances develop in the future, to see this scale of home wood heating. These circumstances would be high unemployment and high heating oil prices. Because selling firewood can be “under the table”, many unemployed men would prefer to cut and sell fuelwood than help with chores around the house or cut for their own use. When the price of energy increases significantly faster than household income, experience has shown that home fuelwood, either self-cut or purchased, becomes more attractive. 

    Biomass for electrical generating is unique in having a horizontal demand curve.  These plants are for baseline electrical production, and the goal is to run them at better than 90% of capacity at all times.  This would appear to be a boon for loggers, who are always looking for a good, steady market.  However, when you overlay the traditional boom and bust sawlog market on top of that, the situation becomes more complex.  Biomass generally gets a free ride out of the woods on the back of sawtimber.  If the market for sawlogs is poor, would the biomass activities tend to flood the market with sawlogs which would further depress the market?  When sawlog markets are strong, and the mills can not get enough, will the need to produce biomass chips prevent a logger from optimizing profits?

    As we look ahead, it is comforting to know, if 1978-79 is any guide, that most home fuelwood will be cut from lots that are not considered available for biomass harvesting because they are too small.

  2. Sandy Olson → in Troy, Maine
    Aug 31, 2010

    I found it a little disturbing that nowhere in the article on biomass as fuel was the value of the standing forest as O2 producer and carbon sink mentioned. It was my understanding of the article that biomass production could be achieved without touching the “capital” forest but until I see more evidence of that I remain skeptical.
    And one other comment about marginal farmland. We might need that land for food production as global food become to expensive to access and local food production needs to increase.

  3. Chuck Wooster → in Corinth, VT
    Sep 01, 2010

    Hi Sandy—

    Your points are well taken and get right to the heart of the biomass debate. My goal in writing the article was to try to demonstrate a sense of what was possible and how a future might look if we started utilizing more biomass here in the Northeast. Throughout the article, I assumed that we wouldn’t ever want to cut more wood than was growing in our forests - not touching the capital, as you put it. Except for your home state, which currently cuts nearly all of its annual growth, the other six Northeast states are nowhere close to cutting at that level. As you suggest, cutting so heavily for biomass that we start reducing our overall forest cover would have many detrimental consequences, including the loss of oxygen production/carbon sink that you mentioned.

    As an organic vegetable and meat farmer by day, I also agree entirely that we may want some of that ‘marginal’ land back in food production in the future. I certainly hope so. The specifics of the economy at that point - energy prices, property taxes, transportation costs - will help determine whether that land might best be used for food or biomass. It would be nice to have such options!

    —Chuck Wooster

  4. Neil Conklin → in Rockville, MD
    Sep 02, 2010

    Thank you for a balanced and well written article. As a public policy educator it is a pleasure to read an article that examines a complex issue, like the debate over the role of biomass in our energy future, without spin or sensationalism.  Renewable energy, especially biopower and biofuels, are a major focus of our policy education program at Farm Foundation. Your article is one I will be referring to often.

    While I now live outside of Washington, DC I remember planting thousands of pine and spruce seedlings on the eroding hillsides of my family’s dairy farm in central Vermont in the early 1960s, an experience that still reminds me that sustainable systems of farming and forestry don’t happen on their own.

  5. Emily Rowe
    Sep 14, 2010

    The following comments came in while our website was being retooled. We are re-posting them now for the authors.

    Chuck: Thanks for writing a thoughtful and informative piece. However, I would like to clarify an important point. In the statement I gave you I also said that if indeed there is a net flux of C to the atmosphere from woody biomass harvesting at landscape scales, it is compensated over time by offset fossil fuel emissions. The time lag over which that offset ultimately exceeds the C debt is currently the subject of intense scrutiny by researchers all over the U.S. and globally, including the Carbon Dynamics Lab here at UVM.

    One additional clarification: the position of my quote in the article may be misleading. This statement was a response to the question of whether there is a fundamental difference between what some people are calling “biological carbon” and carbon emissions from fossil fuels. My opinion is that there isn’t if the ultimate concern is the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The source of the carbon is irrelevant as long as more carbon is fluxing to the atmosphere compared to the amount that is being taken out. Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

    Bill Keeton
    Burlington, Vermont

    I’ve heard much about the so-called ‘carbon neutrality’ of burning our forests to offset our burning of coal. But to claim that somehow improves or reduces CO2 in the atmosphere is insane. CO2 has no memory of how it got there. And to suppose future forests are going to increase/re-sequester the instantly released CO2 from bio-incinerators is so ridiculous a child would know better. Globally, the trend is the elimination of forests, not the reverse. North America once had forests from ocean to ocean. Look at it now! And burning what forests remain isn’t going to improve it. The better use of the underbrush, slash, and ‘rounds’ (young/non-commercial trees) is to allow them to enrich and maintain the forest soils rather than exposing bare soils to winter elements, leaching, erosion, compaction, and reduction of bio-diversity. Bio-incineration is a boondoggle much like corn ethanol was. We can’t get out of the hole we’re in by digging it deeper. We can’t eliminate climate change by burning our forests!



    Pinbalwyz… It’s amazing how much you can learn just be observation! Now can we add another factor in here. Non-native invasive species. Weather it be beetle or barberry. If you want to see some great forested areas suffering from non-native invasives, stop down into Massachusetts! Very slow to no tree regeneration in in hot spots. We sometimes hear about the “tipping point.” The point in which we may let these species encroach, proliferate, and gain a strong foothold. The seed is there. If it’s not… someone who doesn’t know will be planting it! Matter of fact, UVM’s “Landscape Plants FOR Vermont” includes barberry and Norway maples! Not very useful biomass in my mind! Those should not even be considered as options! Just because we don’t have problems now… What happens when the Asian longhorn beetle makes it way around? In Massachusetts, there is not enough biomass to be burning. We need as much shade as we can get here! And please stop planting these non-native invasives. It may take a generation or two to see some serious ramifications. ... Isn’t preserving for generations what we want to do?

    Paul Cysz

  6. Chuck Wooster → in Corinth, Vermont
    Sep 22, 2010

    This comment came in as a Letter to the Editor for the printed magazine.

    To the Editors:

    A year ago, Chuck Wooster and I agreed to disagree on whether burning wood (or other biomass) was carbon-neutral and involved a net zero CO2 carbon cycle. He supported both notions.

    I detect some change in his point of view in the recent article “The Burning Question” (Autumn 2010). But he still implies that somehow the CO2 from burning wood (biomass) should be viewed as more benign than that resulting from burning fossil fuel; this despite the fact that he quotes Prof Bill Keeton’s research at UVM, which states, “It’s one big carbon cycle”. In the last year, there has been substantial research published – besides Keeton’s – pointing out errors in accounting for net CO2 from burning biomass (See e.g. Science Magazine October 2009 “Fixing a Critical Climate Accounting Error” -

    Mr. Wooster also states that, “A dead tree releases stored carbon back into the atmosphere whether it burns or rots, thus these emissions can be considered to be a natural part of biosphere.” True, maybe, but what a difference the rate of the oxidation makes: when it rots, the CO2 in the atmosphere is increased much more slowly, offering at least the possibility of re-sequestration of the carbon at a similar rate. Not true when the wood is burned. As Keeton points out, burning biomass adds a net addition of carbon to the atmosphere despite what carbon cycles you may wish to believe in.  Contrary to Wooster’s claims, any fuel is 100% carbon additive when burned.

    The key to understanding is to examine the biomass fuel production end of the cycle. The test for carbon-neutrality when burning biomass should be whether carbon sequestration capacity is increased as a result of its harvest. If no increase in that capacity results from actions taken in harvesting biomass, then there’s little difference between CO2 from burning that biomass versus fossil fuel: the resulting capacity for re-sequestering that CO2 is the same for either source.

    For this reason, focusing on increasing the capacities for sequestering carbon from CO2 in the atmosphere is one of the most important things we can do. Prof Keeton calls it “additionality”, and it’s a primary message from his research.

    Northern Woodlands is in a good position to write on this issue since it pertains to the management of woodlands. I would love to see a comprehensive article on this topic.

    Pete Bennett
    Underhill Center, VT

  7. Chuck Wooster → in Corinth, Vermont
    Sep 22, 2010

    This comment came in as a Letter to the Editor for the printed magazine.

    The question about biomass or not for the Northeast is one that is kicked around in every region. I helped form and chair the SAFER (Southeast Agriculture and Forest Energy Resources) Alliance, located in North Carolina. We focused on renewable (and yes, biomass-based) energy, and that question also was raised there. If we are interested in and concerned about greenhouse gas emissions, as all seem to be, and the fact that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased from about 315-320 parts per million (ppm) to about 390 in the past 40 or so years, and that about 80-85 percent of that can be attributed to things related to the consumption/release of fossil carbon, it seems pretty straightforward. If we RE-USE the carbon that is already in “play” in the atmosphere to grow biomass, and then use that for fuel, we return that carbon to the pool for reuse..but are NOT adding “new” carbon that is now sequestered in fossil form by using that for fuel. How simple is that? The net result will be a leveling (at least) or reduction (hoped for) in the “surplus” carbon that is “in play”, aka, atmospheric CO2.

    From a friend,

    Len Bull

  8. Josh Schlossberg → in Montpelier, VT
    Nov 30, 2010

    It’s nice that folks are starting to realize the poor choice burning New England’s forests for electricity would be.

    However, right now there are two large scale electricity generating facilities being proposed in Vermont, and few, if any, of the environmental groups in the state, nor those who are in favor of wood heating over electricity production, have gotten very involved in the permitting process, nor spoken out publicly against these facilities, to my knowledge (please correct me if I’m wrong).

    The outreach and media coverage has been so poor, that most Vermonters I have spoken to don’t even know these facilities are being planned at all.

    BERC states they support heating over electricity, but after reading a media quote from a BERC staff member that seemed supportive of the biomass electricity facilities for Fair Haven and Pownal, VT, I sent an email asking if that meant BERC supported the facilities. I didn’t receive an answer.

  9. Paul Cysz → in Lee, Ma
    Dec 23, 2010

    In times of economic downturn, the lands and wildlife always pay the initial price. Our charges would be next. Until we are in over our heads, we do not know the damage we will be creating. Everyone’s hands are in this gigantic cookie jar. “I’ll just take what I can for now. I’ll be dead by the time I run out.” 

    Too many uneducated takers and not enough educated doers.

  10. Elise Hancock → in Baltimore, MD
    Jan 05, 2011

    I have two questions that arise from pondering this excellent article:  We (meaning, grandly, Humanity in this century) may need to return to wood as a primary building material because there could be so MUCH new building to do, assuming the oceans rise some while some areas (like Arizona) become uninhabitable, except at a prohibitively high cost in energy (shipping all food and water in plus all the cooling). Producing that much steel might well not be doable, and petroleum-based products will presumably become less and less available. On the whole, I think it would be easier and more prudent to bite the bullet and reduce our CO2 emissions and our need for energy in every form right now.

    The effect on the biosphere is also a major concern. We need more forests (not managed plantations), not less… Does anyone know how much forest it takes to provide enough oxygen for humans and all the creatures we depend on?  Trees are also critical to the soil’s ability to absorb and hold water, and water tables are already unacceptably low and dropping.

    If anyone can tell me where to find a sensible discussion of these issues, I’d be grateful.

  11. James Dowd → in Elllenburg
    Feb 07, 2011

    I am so amazed at just how many learned folks are just listening to opinions by many, so called, green advocates.  I have seen where “scientists” have been hoodwinked by these huggers.  Don’t get me wrong, I sound like a “redneck”, but I do admire the move toward energy and nature conservatism, but I don’t admire the followers of uninformed greenhouse gas fanatics. Many many well meaning people remain on the wrong path in attempts to determine the real cause of any perceived or measured climate change. Current evidence shows the combined greenhouse contributions of CO2, methane, N2O and misc. gases are small compared to water vapor! 
        Total atmospheric carbon dioxide, both anthropogenic and natural, is only about 3.6% of the overall greenhouse effect; a big difference from the 72.3% figure ignoring water!
        Water vapor, the most significant greenhouse gas, comes from natural sources and is responsible for roughly 95% of the greenhouse effect. Among climatologists this is common knowledge but among special interests groups, certain governmental groups, and news reporters this fact is under-emphasized or just ignored altogether.
        Conceding that it might be “a little misleading” to leave water vapor out, they nonetheless defend the practice by stating that it is “customary” to do so!

  12. Chuck Wooster → in Corinth, VT
    Feb 09, 2011


    I’m entirely in agreement that we need to reduce our overall energy use, and especially our use of fossil fuel energy, as quickly as possible. As the article points out, there are not enough trees in the forest to have biomass by itself solve our energy problems. Even if there were, I doubt we would we want to divert all of the wood we do cut away from its other uses, such as lumber for building.

    Nevertheless, we do live amidst an amazingly resilient natural forest that has the capacity to provide some of our energy needs, assuming that we approach the issue thoughtfully. Therein lies the rub!


    Thanks for your comment on the contribution of water vapor to the greenhouse effect, which is far larger than the contribution from CO2. You’re absolutely correct, though I think you may be overlooking the fact that the greenhouse effect (the naturally occurring greenhouse effect, that is) is a good and necessary thing. Without the greenhouse effect, all of us on Earth would be frozen solid in the cold of deep space.

    The problem we face is that we’re turning up the thermostat inside the greenhouse with our additional carbon emissions. I took a stab at this issue in an earlier article - see what you think.

  13. Jesse Sewell → in South Carolina
    Sep 08, 2011

    The Manomet Center is a disgrace to science.  Suggesting that Biomass is as bad as coal or worse is patently stupid and completely unjustifiable.  What people fail to understand is harvest occur every day and hundreds of thousands if not millions of tons of wood waste is left to simply rot on the ground.  That wood will release its carbon.  Because of idiots like those at Manomet, selling ideology instead of science, we have no market for that waste wood.  We should be paying loggers to collect it and deliver it to Biomass Plants for fuel.  This would support the forest industry and allow it to thrive and provide quality jobs to bright young professionals who can ensure that the forests are properly managed and harvested sustainably. Manomet has only harmed the forest industry and in so doing has put forests in jeopardy, not saved them.

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