Burning forests for electricity, aka biomass incineration, is being proposed across the nation as a “clean and green” energy source, right up there with solar and wind.But unlike solar and wind, biomass incinerators, such as Burlington, Vermont’s McNeil generating station, put out harmful pollutants such as Carbon Monoxide, Sulfur Dioxide, Nitrogen Oxides, Hydrochloric Acid, Ammonia, Formaldehyde, Chlorine, and particulate matter.
The Environmental Protection Agency says particulate matter is “so small that [it] can get deep into the lungs and cause serious health problems.”The EPA links particulate exposure to “increased respiratory symptoms, such as irritation of the airways, coughing, or difficulty breathing; decreased lung function; aggravated asthma; development of chronic bronchitis; nonfatal heart attacks; and premature death in people with heart or lung disease.” Multiple studies demonstrate there is no safe level of exposure to particulates.
The American Lung Association cites concerns about “severe impacts on the health of children, older adults, and people with lung diseases” from biomass, while the Massachusetts Medical society states, “biomasspower plants pose an unacceptable risk to the public’s health by increasing air pollution.”
Board certified pediatrician Dr. William Sammons of Massachusetts insists that biomass “will have a direct negative impact on the health of our Nation’s children: both immediately and cumulatively throughout their lifetimes, and for generations to come.”
Numerous complaints have been filed over the years from Burlington residents living near the McNeilbiomass incinerator on issues from sickening odors, to spontaneous combustion of woodchip piles, to noise complaints, to dust.
Climate change, anyone?In June, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts released the “Manomet” study, demonstrating that forest biomass incineration will release more global warming gases than coal over the very timeframe climate scientists insist we must curb our carbon emissions. The Manomet study has resulted in Massachusetts re-evaluating the incentives offered for biomass incineration and its findings have rippled across New England, the nation and the world.
A report by Environmental Working Group states that “carbon dioxide emissions from biomass per unit of energy generated are about 1.5 times higher than from coal and 3 to 4 times greater than from natural gas,” and that “over the next 15 years about 4.7 billion tons of carbon will be generated from burning biomass,” which would “erase 80% of the reduction in CO2 emissions from the power sector that is at the heart of federal climate legislation.”
It’s as simple as this: if you support climate change legislation mandating CO2 emissions cuts over the next several decades, then you oppose biomass incineration for electricity.
How about forests?Forests not only give us the best climate buffer on the planet through the sequestration and storage of CO2, they also provide trillions of dollars of ecosystem services such as clean air, pure water, erosion and flood control, and fish and wildlife, not to mention recreation and tourism dollars.New England’s forests are already stressed by current uses of lumber, paper pulp and firewood. With forest cover in New England once again declining, there just aren’t enough forests in New England to feed more hungry incinerators.
Few deny the need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels. But in our scramble to limit—and ultimately end—our dependence on oil, let’s make sure we’re not jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. We’ve burned our way into this climate change mess and we’re not going to burn our way out. Even a grade schooler can understand that clean energy can’t come out of a smokestack.
Solutions?Here’s some: Drastically ramp up energy efficiency and conservation—reports estimate that the State of Vermont could meet 19-30% of electricity demand from efficiency measures alone. We should also carefully move forward with appropriately sited and scaled, community supported, zero-waste, zero-emissions, renewable energy such as solar, wind and microhydro (no new dams).
But eventually we’ve got to come to terms with the fact that no combination of renewable energy can power the current American way of life.It’s up to us to transition our lifestyles to something the planet can sustain.