On Thursday night about 100 students, faculty and community members gathered for the lecture titled “Should We Be Getting our Electricity from Trees?” The talk marked the second in the biomass panel series hosted by the College this academic year.
Bill Moomaw ’59, director of the Center for International Environmental Policy at Tufts University, began the lecture by outlining the potential hidden downsides of wood-burning biomass plants. “Wood is abundant, and many people assume that burning wood for electricity is carbon neutral and sustainable,” he said. Moomaw also added that most state and national policies and corporations also treat biomass electricity as carbon neutral in order to be eligible for federal subsidies.
“Biomass is not carbon neutral and actually emits more carbon dioxide than a coal burning plant,” Moomaw said. He also demonstrated that biomass’s demand for forests and trees greatly outweighs the supply. He explained that biofuels would be in competition with the benefits we receive from trees, such as biodiversity and air quality.
Mary Booth, an expert on biomass and the co-founder of the Massachusetts Environmental Energy Alliance, followed Moomaw’s statement. Booth supported many of Moomaw’s previous points with hard facts and statistics. “It’s important to get the carbon accounting right,” she said. “From a carbon standpoint, natural gas is better [than biomass].”
Due to the fact that wood is regarded as a renewable resource, many feel that biomass is a sustainable form of energy. However, “it takes 32 years for the resources for one year of biomass plant operation to grow back,” Booth said. “You would never be able to replace coal use with biomass.”
The speakers also highlighted the realities of a proposed biomass plant in Pownal, Vt. The supply of available wood is approximately 1,156,087 tons, yet the plant would need at least 2,822,500 tons of wood annually to operate.
Booth called on the audience to hold the energy companies and the policy makers more accountable. “This is just math, so why aren’t they taking this to the policy makers?” she said. “There’s a lot of money to be made [in biomass], so the [the energy companies] are willing to take the chance that you all won’t do the math.”
“The policies should be driven by the facts and not by the politics of any energy source,” Moomaw said. “Every form of electricity has its downside, but we have to think about which tradeoffs we want.”