NOLL: On Georgia’s erroneous bioenergy scheme

Michael G. Noll

On Sept. 22, Jason Shaw wrote an article titled “Georgia pushes to expand clean energy,” wherein he correctly described the laudable expansion of solar energy production in Georgia, that will benefit our state for years to come. Unfortunately, the article also reiterated the myth that biomass energy is clean, which it is not, and neither is it carbon neutral. 

On Oct. 1, I responded with the column “Georgia PSC dabbles in bio-foolery,” to set the record straight.

Then on Oct. 22, Tim Echols, who currently serves as vice chair of Georgia’s Public Service Commission, chimed in with his piece, “Biomass a viable alternative for Georgia,” in which he defends Georgia’s biomass industry. However, careful readers, who were following the discussion, will note that:

1) Tim Echols never disputes the fact that biomass energy is dirty. Why? Because he can’t. As we found out with the help of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, biomass is dirtier than coal in regard to particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and carbon dioxide.

2) The vice chair of the PSC also does not dispute the fact that biomass energy is not carbon neutral. Why? Because it is not. Any time you burn a tree, you instantaneously release the carbon dioxide into the atmosphere it stored and sequestered for decades, if not longer.

What is most disturbing about Mr. Echols’ letter, though, is his narrative about forest residuals, as if the biomass industry in Georgia would only use wood waste left behind after logging or after the thinning of pine plantations. It doesn’t. 

This is not about forest residuals but the propping up of a wood-pellet industry in Georgia, which harvests entire trees and patches of forest for the explicit production of “biomass,” which will then be shipped thousands of miles to markets in Europe.

Each year, millions of tons of wood pellets are shipped from the U.S. and states like Georgia across the Atlantic. So in addition to the lies we are being told about biomass as being clean and carbon neutral, we are now supposed to believe that the wood pellets we ship to Europe are made from “forest residuals”?

What the commissioners fail to understand is that Europe’s biomass industry, which perhaps began with the EU Renewable Energy Directive of 2009, is now being heavily criticized by experts across the world, and especially by the European Academies Sciences Advisory Council. 

In a statement from early September of this year, EASAC unequivocally called for “international action to climate-damaging forest bioenergy schemes.” Simply put, they have come to the realization that said schemes not only threaten forests worldwide and the biodiversity they contain, but they also make our current climate crisis worse.

Thus, the erroneous stance of Georgia’s PSC stands in stark contrast to established science and to the latest developments in Europe.

In sum, the best path forward for all of us is to keep our forests intact (aside from standard forestry practices and the sustainable use of trees for a non-biomass-energy industry), to harvest less trees and instead plant more, and to allow the trees to do what they do best: store and sequester the carbon contained in our atmosphere.

For all those interested in learning more about the issue, I recommend an essay written by Mary S. Booth, director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity, which was recently published in the New York Review of Books: “The Great Biomass Boondoggle.”

Michael G. Noll is president of Wiregrass Activists for Clean Energy.

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