Opinion: The benefits of biomass

By Jasen Stock

Jasen Stock is the executive director of N.H. Timberland Owners’ Association.

In a recent opinion piece (“We can’t burn our way out of the climate crisis,” Concord Monitor, 4/2) readers are warned that New Hampshire is facing a climate crisis and that we must move further away from fossil fuels and end the use of biomass (wood chips) to make power. Ironically, what that fails to recognize is that ending biomass power will lead to the increased use of fossil fuels in this region.

As I write this, (according to ISO-New England) the New England region is getting 66% of our power from natural gas, 18% from nuclear power, but only 1.6% from biomass power. True, those percentages vary daily, but biomass has been, and likely will remain, a small part of the overall energy mix in New England. Yet, from a climate perspective, biomass’ relatively small contribution to the power grid has a disproportionate benefit to the environment. This benefit is three-fold.

First, this power, as determined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is close to “carbon neutral.” Second, the fuel for this power supports sustainable forestry through the markets it provides for low-grade timber. Third, as New Hampshire continues to grow more trees annually than harvested (according to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Forest Inventory Analysis), this power is truly renewable.

The science behind carbon accounting and carbon sequestration and storage is complicated, but it is important to keep in mind a few very basic points on this topic. First, burning fossil fuels like natural gas, coal, or oil adds new carbon into the atmosphere that has been buried underground for millions of years. On the other hand, because forests can capture and store carbon, the carbon they emit when burned has been in circulation in the atmosphere relatively recently and is part of a constant turnover.

This is why in April 2018 the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency said biomass from managed forests will be treated as carbon neutral when used for energy production at stationary sources. Similarly, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated in its 4th Assessment Report, “In the long-term, a sustainable forest management strategy aimed at maintaining or increasing forest carbon stocks, while producing an annual sustained yield of timber, fiber or energy from the forest, will generate the largest sustained mitigation benefit.”

The fuel for biomass power comes from low-grade trees harvested as part of forest management projects or is a by-product from other wood-processing facilities, (e.g., sawmills). To assert that forestland owners are cutting their trees for the sole purpose of burning is incorrect and demonstrates a lack of knowledge of forest management and timber markets.

The truth is that it simply makes no financial sense for a landowner or logger to cut high-value trees to burn them as biomass. Instead, the trees used to make power are the cull, diseased, or malformed trees needing removal to make room for healthier, more vigorous trees. Absent markets for low-grade timber, sustainable forest management isn’t economically viable, forcing landowners, foresters, and loggers to make difficult decisions about how to manage their timberlands (seek alternative revenue sources, subdivide, and sell, etc.).

It is widely recognized that the best hedge against climate change is for forests to remain forests and to grow more wood. Maintaining markets that enable sustainable timberland ownership is one of the best ways to implement this strategy. Also, actively managing timberland to grow more wood is another important strategy.

According to the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) between 2015 and 2020 New Hampshire’s forests grew 312 million cubic feet of timber and lost 223 million cubic feet to harvesting and natural mortality: a net gain of 89 million cubic feet. There is no clearer way to demonstrate the carbon benefits that come from sustainable forest management.

Lastly, the rural economic benefits of biomass power are also worth mentioning, particularly since the “environmental justice” question has been raised by referencing “overburdened communities.” Low-grade timber markets are one of the foundations of the state’s forest products industry. According to the 2020 N.H. Forest Action Plan (FAP), this sector is responsible for $1.5 billion worth of direct economic output with about 7,200 direct jobs attributed to this sector and almost 12,000 total jobs supported. Most of these jobs occur in rural parts of the state.

Moreover, the policy debate in the NH Legislature is about whether state policy should support the operation of an existing biomass power plant in Berlin. In testimony and in print, the city has repeatedly explained the economic benefits they get from this power plant.

If one is truly concerned about the climate crisis and economic health of the state, they should take a step back and look at the big picture. Yes, adding solar panels and wind power to the state’s energy mix will help. But any gains from this will be short-lived and lost if our forests are no longer sustainably managed, are lost to development, and the wood chips being used to make electricity are left in the forest to rot, the biomass from wood processing facilities are landfilled, and fossil fuel is burned instead.

As the second most forested state in the union, let’s not be short-sighted and ignore this renewable resources’ ability to provide lumber for our homes, pulp for paper, biomass for power, jobs for our communities while sequestering carbon and providing all the other benefits we enjoy (recreation, wildlife, water filtration, etc.)

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