Six Ongoing Biomass Myths

Alliance for Green Heat President John Ackerly presents the top three myths argued by both sides of the wood-burning debate in an effort to bring common sense and logic to what is often viewed as a polarizing issue.
By John Ackerly | April 30, 2019

Some myths never seem to die. They morph from grains of truth in academic papers to slogans on bumper stickers, and then get debated by society for decades. In other instances, they’re based in solid science, but then get pushed beyond their logical limit. The following are our top three on both sides of the debate about whether biomass should be used to heat homes and institutions.

Myths Perpetuated by Wood Burners
Humans are conditioned to some wood smoke. “Humans have cooked and heated with wood for millennia. Why all the fuss now?” True, but we only began living past the age of 30 about 30,000 years ago. And just 2,000 years ago, half of Romans who lived to the age of 15 died before they were 45. Along with modern plumbing and penicillin, one of the most important human health inventions was the chimney. Paired with a good stove, a good chimney can get close to 100 percent of smoke out of living space. People disliked wood smoke in their homes in colonial America as much as they dislike it today. And the health impacts of breathing wood smoke are still just as bad.

It’s carbon neutral. “Trees absorb carbon from the atmosphere as they grow, and if a tree is burned for fuel, another tree will replace it and reabsorb the carbon.” The theory is sound, but in practice, it’s much more complicated. The carbon impact of burning wood is on a spectrum from very good to very bad, all depending on how it’s done. Few would argue that harvesting old-growth forest in ecologically sensitive areas in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania and national parks in Slovakia is carbon neutral. And few would argue that from a carbon perspective, using trees blown down by Hurricane Katrina to heat homes in the eastern U.S. is a far better use of carbon than using oil or gas. The impossible task is to find one average point on that spectrum that assigns a carbon footprint to using a ton of wood for energy. There are many points on the spectrum, and the sooner we recognize that, the better.

Healthy forests are managed forests. “There are a myriad of good reasons to manage a forest, especially as impacts of climate change make some forests far more vulnerable to catastrophic wild fires. Well-managed forests can provide many habitat and ecosystem benefits.” That said, foresters can overstate their case, and be slow to acknowledge that “management” can be a guise for practices that aren’t sustainable. Plantations harvested every 20 years do not recoup the ecological diversity and carbon sequestration that the original, natural forest had.

Anti-Wood-Burning Activist Myths
No amount of wood smoke is safe or justifiable. “In this modern age where almost all of us have access to far cleaner fuels, heating homes with wood is not only a public health hazard, it’s unethical and selfish. The huge volume of smoke that a single stove can emit in a neighborhood far outweighs any benefit of not using fossil fuel.”  We agree that stoves often produce excessive smoke and there’s a need for improved technology, and better regulations and enforcement by public health departments. But when wood or pellet stoves or boilers produce barely any smoke detectable to the eye or the nose, you have to start the complex task of comparing small amounts of smoke to a wide range of negative impacts of oil, gas or electricity. We know we have a public health emergency from climate change that is the result of fossil fuels being too cheap and easy to use. At what point is it justifiable, as a society, to accept some negative consequences of other fuels?

Wood emits more carbon than coal.  “Wood is the new coal,” is a slogan that some activists are trying to promote.  This myth gained traction in 2010, after the release of the Manomet study that had been commissioned by the State of Massachusetts.  A newspaper ran the headline “Biomass Worse Than Coal,” but the majority of the report analyzed in detail when and why biomass was far better than coal. Basically, Manomet said it would take 40 years for the carbon to be reabsorbed if biomass replaced coal in electric plants. However, it clearly states that biomass “lowers greenhouse gas levels compared to what would have been the case if fossil fuels had been used over the same period.” This serves as a vivid reminder that regardless of what a report actually says, the headline chosen by editors can define the public memory of that report.

We must eliminate combustion technology. “Biomass is simply another smokestack industry that must be replaced with modern, clean renewable technology. Cars, trucks, planes—and boilers—must be quickly transitioned to renewable electric fuel and move past the antiquated age of combustion.” We wanted to end this essay on a more conciliatory note and rebut this assertion with a challenge: let’s try to replace combustion technology and remain open- minded to that. The question is how fast, and what should be considered “bridge” fuels and “bridge” technologies? In the meantime, we believe biomass is vital, not because it is the ideal energy pathway, but because in its best applications, it is far too efficient and affordable to pass up now.

Author: John Ackerly
President, Alliance for Green Heat