Biomass is a Good Fuel Alternative, But It Also Gives Valuable Benefits For Farmers
Plants and trees are very crucial for our planet. However, bad things can happen to trees as well, whether it’s because of humans or nature itself. And eventually, those trees become some kind of waste. But not just a waste, because it can hold hidden value as a source of biomass energy. Now, biomass isn’t the key to saving the world. However, it’s a good fuel alternative and it’s beneficial for farmers, economies, and ecosystems.
“On any timber harvest 60% to 65% of all wood harvested is low-grade wood, which ends up as pulp or wood chips for the biomass plants. Our forest is no different than the garden in your backyard: We both have to weed and thin it if we want a productive garden or, in my case, a sustainable forest for all to enjoy,” New Hampshire tree farmer Tom Thomson wrote in a 2019 column for the Concord Monitor newspaper.
What is biomass?
Basically, biomass is a category of fuels and they’re all produced by renewable sources that are alive or were alive recently. The word bio comes from the fact that this kind of fuel consists mainly of plant matter. Since this type of fuel is renewable like wind and solar power, certain kinds of biomass are seen as a more sustainable alternative to fossil fuels like coal. In fact, The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that burning biomass to make electricity instead of using fossil fuels is one possible way to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere.
Now, tree farmers do benefit from raising trees, but they also have the opportunity to make them as an energy source. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), “Some fast-growing trees make excellent energy crops since they grow back repeatedly after being cut off close to the ground.” Trees that perform well as biomass plants include pine, poplar, sweetgum, sycamore and willow.
Just like biomass, waste wood can include a lot of things. A vegetable farmer might have a small surplus of woody debris after clearing a patch of land for crops. Or maybe a storm damages a forest and there are some extra wood lying around. Orchard owner might have more wood on a regular basis, and tree farmers often end up with larger amounts due to low-value timber and wood waste that’s collected along with more valuable logs to be sold for lumber.
Fastmarkets RISI, a price-reporting and analytics firm for global commodities markets, explained, “Timber harvest residuals typically include tops and limbs too small for lumber production or containing too much bark for pulp use. These are ground or chipped onsite and diverted to energy production. Trees of low value may also be chipped whole for use in energy production, or debarked and chipped for pellet manufacture.”
Debris as a result from storms aren’t the only thing that can be included as wood waste. Manufacturing residues like wood chips, shavings, sawdust from production of lumber or wood panels, and post-consumer wood waste are within the category as well. Although, these sources may be less valuable depending where they came from.
Instead of wood products, the most valuable waste wood tends to come directly from trees. and while that can include debris from urban trees, farmers are often in the best situation to take advantage of this market. And along with other forms of biomass, waste wood could provide a much-needed boost for farmers and rural economies overall, according to the UCS.
According to the group, “Farmers would gain a valuable new outlet for their products. Rural communities could become entirely self-sufficient when it comes to energy, using locally grown crops and residues to fuel cars and tractors and to heat and power homes and buildings.”
Waste wood with higher quality is used for energy in a few ways. It can serve as a feedstock for advanced biofuels, for example, or it can be processed into wood pellets that are burned for energy, either in small boilers and furnaces or at large-scale industrial facilities.
With this, power sector can reduce its coal use. Now, burning wood for electricity is something controversial, because wood pellets come from whole trees in vulnerable ecosystems. If that wood is derived from places like wooded wetlands or old-growth forests, that would have the same negative impacts as using coal.
Additionally, even if they come from plantations or waste wood, their emissions can still threaten human health, and they’re only climate-friendlier than coal if they’re part of a system in which live trees are continually offsetting their carbon dioxide output.
Those who disagree with this type of fuel believe that it’s impractical to collect enough waste wood to provide a reliable large-scale power source. And because of this, companies may resort to less sustainable sources for wood pellets, including whole trees taken from natural forests.
Mary Booth, industry critic and director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity, stated that when trees are harvested while still green, the mass burning of green wood — which has a high water content — “can end up being as dirty as coal.”
However, some experts said that there are large amounts of low-value wood in some U.S. forests and that could be responsibly used as an energy source. Penn State Extension stated, “In most of the northeastern United States there is quite a lot of low-use wood not utilized in any markets. In Pennsylvania, some studies estimate that six to eight million dry tons per year of sustainably harvestable low-use wood is not being used.”
But does it really help the environment?
Critics point out waste wood isn’t always “waste” in an ecological sense, because it provides vital habitat for cavity-nesting birds and other wildlife while at the same time. According to biomass industry advocates, thinning out debris in managed forests can reduce fire risk and give trees additional space to grow larger.
Biomass offers more economic incentive for that by giving landowners a market for lower-value wood. California tree farmer Gary Hendrix explained that a new biomass mill and co-generation plant created a market for him to thin out low-grade wood on his property. “As long as we have forests that grow, we’re going to need to take care of them. The right markets can really help,” said Hendrix.
Landowners don’t have to sell waste wood, they might utilize it as an energy source for their own purposes. Some farmers keep at least some of their biomass to burn in furnaces or boilers for on-farm heating, which can offer higher efficiency, lower energy bills and fewer carbon emissions.
A study done by University of Vermont from 2008 to 2015 showed that growers who installed biomass greenhouse-heating systems saved an average of nearly $2,700 on net fuel costs per year, with the systems paying for themselves at full cost within 4.8 years.
David Marchant, co-owner of River Berry Farm in Fairfax, stated, “The boiler makes hot water which we can use in multiple greenhouses by plumbing it to them in insulated PEX piping. Once in the greenhouse, we convert to hot air with a hot water fan coil, put it in the ground for root-zone heating or on the benches in our mat-heating system for starts. I like it. I keep trying to find something wrong with it, but I can’t.”
And if you think these farmers don’t care about the environment, think again. Other than helping with the economy, reducing carbon emissions is also something that benefits many farmers. River Berry’s biomass boiler helped the family-owned organic farm avoid 5,910 pounds of net CO2 emissions per year, roughly equivalent to 5,000 miles of car travel.
So in conclusion, we can still say that biomass is a good thing for the environment. And yes, there are controversies surrounding it, but in today’s time, everything has the potential to be controversial. Besides, if we use waste wood responsibly, it wouldn’t have too many negative impacts compared to coal or fossil fuel would it? What do you think?