OPINION: Climate and Fire, Why Biomass Matters to Both

By Seth Ginther, U.S. Industrial Wood Pellet Association | December 14, 2018

Thousands of environmental experts are in Poland this week, wrapping up the latest United Nations environmental summit. The effects of climate change, including forest fires, have dominated the news for much of the last month. This year’s California fires were horrific. And two recent studies on climate—one from the U.N., and the Trump Administration’s Black Friday release—suggest that fires will continue to get worse. Both reports outline numerous negative impacts from climate change, including fire seasons that are even longer, and impact more and more places.

We need a dramatic pivot, and we need it today.

The good news (if we can call it that) is, when it comes to the related issues of climate and fire, there are two things that most experts agree on: 1) we need to replace coal and other fossil fuels with renewable energy; and 2) we need to better manage our forests to minimize the “super fires” that we are seeing in California and elsewhere.

Wood biomass is a solution that—right now—can help us solve both of these challenges. 

Wood biomass is sourced from industrial wood waste (like sawdust), or low-grade wood, including “thinnings,” limbs, tops or crooked and knotted trees that would otherwise not get used for lumber or other higher-value products.

This low-grade wood is turned into wood pellets, a sustainable fuel that can directly replace coal in existing power plants, with minimal infrastructure investments. This renewable energy provides as much as an 85 percent reduction in each plant’s carbon footprint on a life-cycle basis. Wood biomass complements the intermittency of wind and solar energy. Or, put simply, biomass is available all the time, even when the wind isn’t blowing, or the sun isn’t shining.

Countries like the U.K., Denmark, Sweden and Japan, which are leading the way in renewable energy use, are already turning to wood-based bioenergy. In Europe, for example, biomass represents more than 60 percent of renewable energy consumption and is an essential strategy for meeting ambitious carbon reduction goals.

Using wood biomass has a secondary benefit: it can help us reduce forest fires by creating a market incentive to remove the smaller underbrush, the so-called “ladder fuel” that makes our forests burn faster and hotter. 

So, why not encourage a policy that helps us turn forest thinnings into renewable wood energy, reducing the risk of wildfire, and contributing to a solution on climate change? Earlier this year, an independent and bipartisan California state oversight agency urged the state legislature to do just that—adopt a biomass policy as one solution to the increasing fires.

Some groups have suggested a complete “hands-off” approach to our forests—no forest management at all. But we know this hasn’t worked. Study after study emphasizes the need to manage our forests in a way that reduces fire risk.

Thinning has also been the accepted practice of the U.S. Forest Service for decades, regardless of which political party has been in charge. In fact, the Forest Service undertakes this fire mitigation work every year, but they face significant challenges. Thinning costs money, and ironically, Forest Service resources are constrained because they must spend an ever-increasing percentage of their budget to fight forest fires. Moreover, today’s reality is that there simply isn’t a big enough U.S. market for forest thinnings. Once the Forest Service removes the underbrush, there’s nothing to do with the wood.

A push to use more wood biomass could solve both of these problems: it could create economic incentives to manage the forests and thereby reduce forest fires, and it could reduce the money we spend fighting them (not to mention the economic damage from the losses they create). 

We need to move forward with workable solutions that meet today’s energy needs, while mitigating against climate change and protecting our forests at the same time. Wood biomass is a part of an all-of-the-above approach on renewable energy that can get us there.