A Simple Explanation of the Manomet Study's Flaws

Although the 2010 Manomet study has been attacked and disputed on multiple fronts by biomass industry supporters and stakeholders, William Strauss’s study "How Manomet got it Backwards" goes beyond simply listing flaws.
By Lisa Gibson | May 19, 2011

“How Manomet got it Backwards.”

I have to admit, I might have done a little happy dance in my chair when I got the email from William Strauss, president of FutureMetrics, with those words displayed across the top. Although the 2010 biomass carbon neutrality analysis by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences has been attacked and disputed on multiple fronts by biomass industry supporters and stakeholders, Strauss’s research for "How Manomet got it Backwards" goes beyond simply listing flaws. He uses reason, examples and plain English to explain inherent assumptions that led to what he calls the “debt-then-dividend axiom.”

Yes, I'm smiling as I'm typing this. In short, Strauss uses 11 pages to explain why the authors of the Manomet study have skewed their own results through deeply ingrained assumptions that do not reflect truth. It would be utter speculation to say this inherent bias is purposeful, but nonetheless, it’s incredibly harmful to the biomass industry and any future investments in biopower in Massachusetts.

Perhaps my favorite argument Strauss uses, and the one that provoked an insta-smile on my face, is the fact that the Manomet authors assumed in their research that when harvesting biomass, a tree stand is picked and every single tree is harvested from it. That reflects an ignorance of the fact that a forest is a system, Strauss says. He adds that in real forest systems and under sustainable forestry practices, the carbon released by combustion of selective harvesting is offset by carbon accumulation from the rest of the system’s continued growth. Fortunately, Strauss puts that in terms laypeople like me can understand: if a forest system has 1 million tons of biomass on January 1 of a given year and 1.01 million tons on December 31 of the same year, that forest has increased its carbon stock over that year and it is embodied in that extra 10,000 tons of biomass. Now, if 10,000 tons of biomass is harvested at the end of the year, that forest system begins the next year with the same biomass stock and carbon level it had at the beginning of the year before. That would mean there is no carbon debt because the dividend has already been accumulated, right? But Manomet’s logic leaves no room to stray from the theory that carbon accounting begins at the moment the tree is harvested.

The most disappointing aspect to all of this is that the Manomet findings have been the crutch used by policy makers in Massachusetts to craft significant changes that will effectively end the viability of stand-alone biomass power in the commonwealth. Nevermind the barrage of criticism and legitimate arguments against the study from multiple industries. If speculation, industry chatter and certain concerns about the impetus behind Massachusetts’ policy changes are true, it would seem that sometimes busy mouths with thick pocketbooks have more pull than facts and credible science. I am aware and fully expect that this will get me in trouble with anti-biomass activists, but that’s fine. Ready, set, comment.

Strauss has said his goal is not to upset the course of policy changes taking place in Massachusetts because of the Manomet study, but instead to point out the inherent bias that leads to untruths being disseminated as fact. This reporter has little faith that his well-stated and simply-explained arguments will be properly analyzed before Massachusetts does away with biomass power. I can only hope that his report gets the same amount of coverage and is quoted and referenced as commonly as the Manomet study. But judging from the number of previously-released criticisms of the study that have remained relegated to the background and passed over in mentions of Manomet’s findings, I tend to doubt it.