Environment featured

Worse than coal? Biomass not so green, scientists say.

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – Using biomass to generate electricity is generally not a green practice. In fact, using coal in the short term is cleaner. And short term here means for the next sixty to seventy years.

It’s all very counter-intuitive. The trees we burn to generate electricity grow back and absorb the carbon released in the first place. Using biomass to generate electricity is renewable, it’s green. What’s there not to like?

The problem is that offsetting immediate biomass carbon emissions through new tree growth takes decades. As well, the initial emissions are higher. Burning wood to generate electricity releases 50 percent more carbon dioxide (CO2) than coal.

This time lag between emission and absorption becomes especially problematic if the wood you use comes from clearcut harvesting, as is most often the case in Nova Scotia.

Environmentalists have said this for a long time. What is new is that a Greenhouse Gas calculator, developed by scientists associated with Natural Resources Canada, allows you to quantify when biomass becomes cleaner than coal.

David Patriquin, a retired professor of Biology at Dalhousie, describes in a post on Nova Scotia Forest Notes how he ran the numbers and calculated that in Nova Scotia it will take between 67 and 83 years.

It could take even longer in Nova Scotia, given that clearcutting here has occurred for a very long time, and on very short rotations, making it increasingly more difficult for forests to recover, something that the Greenhouse Gas calculator does not take into account.

Patriquin calls his calculation especially alarming since emissions need to be very substantially reduced by 2050 if we want to slow down climate change.

Nova Scotia Power (NSP) continues to ignore these findings.

“We’re becoming cleaner and greener,” states Mark Sidebottom, vice president of power in a press release issued in January 2016, only to announce that biomass will account for seven percent of all electricity generated in 2020, up from 2.8 percent in 2015.

“Will 2017 be the year we begin to face up to these realities,” Patriquin asks. “Will the Department of Natural Resources develop options for addressing them?”

“Based on discussions with government ministers, MLAs and bureaucrats over the last year, I have to conclude that is not happening,” writes Patriquin.

Video of Higgins Mountain, Cumberland County, ca 2011. Check out the always informative Nova Scotia Forest Notes.

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