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(Photo by PSNH via Creative Commons), After reporting last week on a Midwest biomass group’s proposal to boost wood-fueled heating in the region, reader John Gunn tweeted to tell us “forest biomass GHG emissions are much more complicated than your article indicates.”. By entering your email address you agree for your data to be handled in accordance with our Privacy Policy. “The degree to which biomass energy system can reduce carbon emissions compared to fossil fuels is directly related to establishment and management of harvesting regimes, forest types, fuel transport, and efficiency,” the biomass group’s paper says. For example, if private land that is sustainably harvested for biomass today were to be sold in the future to a company that didn’t follow the same practices, it could erase the carbon gains. With atmospheric carbon pushing 400 parts per million, policymakers need to be aware of the short-term costs of burning biomass, says Gunn. 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Is it from a plantation or a natural forest? Biomass from sources like this produces emissions higher than natural gas, though still lower than coal. A biomass power plant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Or as they say in north America – knock on wood. Fossil Fuel Fossil fuel such as coal, oil and gas are also derived from biological material, however material that absorbed co2 from the atmosphere many millions of years ago. © Copyright 2020. The emissions saving from burning wood at Drax might still be as high as 80 per cent using the more complete DECC biomass calculator method. Drax and the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC)  do not agree. But just in case, maybe keep your fingers crossed too. Guest post: Why does land warm up faster than the oceans? Nevertheless, it’s clear that some types of biomass can replace coal with positive effects for the climate. A biomass cogeneration plant would emit just slightly more carbon than a coal cogeneration plant, with the difference being less than 3 percent. When we burn wood, we’re releasing carbon into the atmosphere that might have otherwise been stored in that form for years, decades or centuries. Left on the forest floor, those branches might decay over several years, releasing some carbon into the air and depositing some carbon back into the soil. That’s why DECC combined them into a massive biomass calculator. But what about demand for wood? Published under a CC license. The carbon released when trees are cut down and burned is taken up again when … Please contact us for commercial use. So are biomass emissions higher or lower than coal? “If that doesn’t hold, then the whole benefit doesn’t hold,” says Gunn. Under business-as-usual those trees would have continued to store carbon in the forest, but instead the carbon would be released into the atmosphere. Jet stream: Is climate change causing more ‘blocking’ weather events? Or will additional natural forests be converted to plantations? Converting the plant to burn wood destroys forests and emits more carbon, it says. On the other hand, intercepting scrap wood that was bound for a landfill can contribute to a quick carbon benefit, but Gunn said that also depends on a lot of factors. When we burn wood, we’re releasing carbon into the atmosphere that might have otherwise been stored in that form for years, decades or centuries. Webinar: Is climate change making wildfires worse? In the cold northern forests of Canada it is usually lower carbon to leave coarse forest residue or trees killed by beetles to rot, because this happens slowly. This alleged “carbon debt” can range anywhere from 2 percent to 66 percent, depending on the type of material burned, what it’s displacing, and whether it’s used to generate heat or electricity, Gunn’s paper asserts. GHG wise, wood is better than fossils or electricity in places that are still depend on fossils. Burning wood residues instead of leaving them in the forest to rot is also generally low carbon. As a result of the 2010 study, Massachusetts amended its renewable portfolio standard to exclude biomass projects with long carbon payback periods. Supporters think the state’s forests have an important role to play in transitioning from fossil fuel heating sources. Drax says it uses wood from thinnings and off-cuts, and that this reduces emissions by 80 per cent compared to burning coal. It’s all immensely complicated to model, let alone keep track of under DECC’s reporting rules. Not all types of biomass are good for the climate. If Drax is burning wood residues like twigs, small branches or sawdust that would otherwise have been burnt as waste, then the emissions will be below 100 kilograms per megawatt hour, or at least ten times lower than burning coal. Then we need to ask what type of wood is being burnt. Gunn is a Minnesota native who now heads a Maine nonprofit research lab, Natural Assets Laboratory, that studies forest carbon issues. Get a Daily or Weekly round-up of all the important articles and papers selected by Carbon Brief by email. Now the final calculator is out, can we say what climate-friendly biomass power look like? It may be on the right track by focusing on sustainably harvested wood for thermal energy in areas not currently served by natural gas, but even so, Gunn says it’s not a given that its vision would be beneficial or even benign in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. Coal-fired power stations emit on average 1,018 kilograms of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour of electricity. We only source sustainable biomass that is low carbon and does not deplete carbon stocks, in line with a recommendation made by the government’s Committee on Climate Change in July.”. The UK is burning nearly four million tonnes of wood a year to generate power, and Drax is the single largest user. Let’s try to unpack things a little. Heat vs. electricity: The life-cycle carbon emissions from generating electricity at a utility-scale biomass facility are about three times greater per MWh than emissions from a similar-sized natural gas electric power plant and 50 percent greater than a coal-fired electricity plant, according to Gunn’s research. As for the environmental benefits, obviously, when you burn wood you’re not burning fossil fuel. Webinar: Do we need to stop eating meat and dairy to tackle climate change? But what does the right kind of biomass look like? DECC says  this will cut carbon too, if the right kind of biomass is used. A Drax spokesperson tells Carbon Brief there’s no way to directly compare the two methodologies because the calculator is theoretical and “does not model real situations”. Gunn is co-author of a more recent paper that identified four factors that were most important in calculating the “debt-then-dividend” curve for a region or biomass facility. “You need to look at what was the fate of that material,” says Gunn. Unlike coal or natural gas, they argue, wood is a low-carbon fuel. In the short term, burning wood for energy results in a net increase in carbon emissions, he says. Guest post: Are low- and middle-income countries bound to eat more meat? You are welcome to reproduce unadapted material in full for non-commercial use, credited ‘Carbon Brief’ with a link to the article. An article in today’s Daily Mail  says it is “lunacy” to run Drax power station on biomass instead of coal. On a carbon basis, wood pellets compete with coal and natural gas much better in thermal or combined-heat-and-power facilities. Mapped: How climate change affects extreme weather around the world. Built with the Largo WordPress Theme from the Institute for Nonprofit News.

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