BTEC webinar tackles biomass energy misconceptions

By Matt Soberg | August 30, 2011

A Biomass Thermal Energy Council webinar, “Public Perceptions of Biomass Thermal Energy: Identifying Sentiment, Overcoming Challenges,” on Aug. 30 tackled issues surrounding how the public views biomass energy projects. The webinar discussed misconceptions about biomass energy and how challenges to projects can be overcome through outreach and education.

The webinar was moderated by Joseph Seymour, BTEC acting executive director. Speakers included Richard Plate, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Florida, Honey Rand, president of Environmental PR Group, and Eric Kingsley, vice president of Innovative Natural Resource Solutions.

The speakers touched on the public concerns that have been raised in communities regarding proposed biomass plants, including emissions, forestry sustainability, cost and aesthetics. The speakers provided advice for developers based on their experiences and research.

Plate discussed a case study conducted in Alachua County, Fla., on the public perceptions of converting wood to energy, stressing that the public can play a significant role in whether a biomass project succeeds. The case study compared the public knowledge of biomass versus other energy sources. Plate found that the people in the study knew less about biomass than other renewable energy or fossil fuels.

The public perceived that burning biomass was negative because it increased emissions and decreased forest sustainability. Plate’s solution to clearing up the misconceptions was by informing the public that burning wood doesn’t increase carbon emissions in the long term and that forests can be managed sustainably. 

Rand presented ways to gain public support for biomass projects, which she said was complicated. Through a discussion of various projects in Florida, she said one solution is to ditch traditional tactics that have not worked, and to understand that people have power. The power can be utilized by developers if they acknowledge the public fears, consider joint fact-finding missions, meet with opponents and cooperate through relationships.

Kingsley and his company, Innovative Natural Resource Solutions, have worked with more than 100 biomass energy projects, ranging from large-scale electricity and biofuel projects to community-scale thermal projects and everything in between.

In his experience, Kingsley said public concerns have included emissions both local and global, truck traffic, noise, property values, competition with existing industry and out-of-town developers, among others. For developers, he stressed that some of the concerns are legitimate, and it is imperative to address those concerns right away with education. Public outreach is of foremost importance, according to Kingsley. 

A question was posed to the panel of whether biomass projects get push-back or negative press from other renewable energy industries such as solar and wind. The speakers concurred that they haven’t seen it on specific projects. However, Rand mentioned that that competition exists between renewables at a legislative level for public funding. 

This was the eighth webinar in a 14-part series hosted by BTEC, and was funded in part by the Forest Service’s Wood Education and Resource Center.

BTEC is a nonprofit that provides biomass energy advocacy, governmental relations, education, outreach and research. WERC works with the forest industry to achieve sustainable forest production through training, technology and education.

The webinar information and materials can be found free of charge on the BTEC website at: