Is biomass really a "green" energy source?

Environmentalists worry that burning biomass as fuel could have as many harmful ecological and health effects as coal.

Candace West/AP Photo/Miami Herald
A crane "fluffs" trash to add air to it at the Wheelabrator Technologies plant, owned by Waste Management in this file photo from October 2008, in Davie, Fla. The trash was going to be burned as biomass fuel.

The Devil is in the Details. If a pulp and paper factory has a lot of biomass produced as a byproduct of production, should it be encouraged to burn that stuff to generate electricity? In aggregate could such alternative energy sources help us to rely less on coal fired power plants? As discusseed here, environmentalist critics are worried that too much of this activity will be triggered by well meaning subsidies for renewable power generation.

The environmentalists are worried that toxic air emissions will rise as all of this biomass will be burned. They point out that coal fired power plants produce two dimensions of "bads". They produce greenhouse gas emissions and local air pollution (particulates and sulfur dioxide). Thus, there are "co-benefits" of reducing our % of power from coal power plants because we get two benefits from swapping out solar or wind for coal.

If we switch over to producing more power using biofuels, how much local health damage does this create? This depends on several factors including; 1. how many people live in the airshed near where the biomass would be burned? 2. how sensitive is their health to elevated toxics levels? 3. how much are they willing to pay to avoid this marginal increase in sickness?

As you can see, this is complex --- so the case for and against biofuels will vary on a case by case basis. As the article details, there are even more items to keep straight. There are carbon life-cycle issues to figure out such as whether the energy source is "carbon neutral" or not?

I don't think that we can rule out any "renewable" power generation approach right now. All of our options (including nuclear) should be explored and through competition and learning, let's see which one wins. That said,I also believe in property rights. Land owners next to biofuel burning locations will suffer as the toxic fumes drift over and lower local land values. This bad externality should be internalized by the biofuel burners. An emissions tax with local refund of the revenue would handle that.

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