Making electricity by burning wood instead of fossil fuels can lower heat-trapping emissions, says a study out today, but not fast enough to head off worsening climatic conditions.
Expanding use of biomass in the Southeast would also mean cutting down more live trees in addition to burning waste wood, the report said, raising questions about its effect on wildlife and water quality.
The Biomass Energy Resource Center, a Vermont nonprofit focused on "community-scale" biomass energy, produced the analysis for the National Wildlife Federation and the Southern Environmental Law Center.
The study analyzed 17 existing and 22 proposed biomass facilities in seven southeastern states, including the Carolinas. The N.C. Utilities Commission ruled in 2010 that Duke Energy could use whole trees, chipped into bits and blended with coal, to help fuel its Buck power plant in Rowan County and its Lee plant in Williamston, S.C.
Researchers looked at the carbon life cycle, forest growth and wood supplies in the region.
They found that fueling commercial power plants with wood and exporting fuel pellets to Europe will produce higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, compared to fossil fuels, for up to 50 years. Levels would drop after that as regrowing forests absorb carbon released earlier.
Adding more carbon to the atmosphere from biomass could accelerate climate change impacts, said the Wildlife Federation's Julie Sibbing. David Carr of the law center says the Environmental Protection Agency should adopt a forest-to-furnace method to calculate the impact of harvesting, burning and regrowing biomass on climate and forests.
The Forest Guild and Spatial Informatics Group partnered with the Biomass Energy Resource Center on the study.