Biomass is a practical, sustainable energy option

Published: Saturday, January 29, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 31, 2005 at 2:51 p.m.

It is too bad that the heat generated by the Gainesville Regional Utilities controversy can't be converted into electricity!

The rhetoric ranges from a letter claiming that "burning biomass will convert North Florida into a Mesopotamian desert" to an Orwellian piece by GRU advocate Ed Braddy (Speaking Out, Jan. 23), who would have us believe that a 220-megawatt power plant, fueled largely with coal and petroleum coke, is pollution control!

He goes on to dismiss pollution as a cause of disease, casting the blame on poverty instead. In fact, the poor suffer more damaging exposure to pollution on average than the rich.

Then he facetiously dismisses the potential of solar energy because of "our beautiful tree canopy."

I live deep in the woods with a perfectly functional solar hot-water heater.

Braddy doesn't mention that GRU's "burn-to-earn" plant is far larger than will be needed for decades to come, particularly if we factor in even conservative estimates of demand-side management, conservation and alternative energy sources such as biomass and solar.

This proposed massive increase in greenhouse gas emissions is ironic, given our membership in Cities for Climate Protection, a commitment by cities worldwide under which we pledged a 20-percent reduction in GHG emissions by 2010, compared to 1990 levels.

An off-the-shelf biomass power plant has the potential to substantially reduce the size of the new fossil fuel power-generation facility needed to meet the actual energy needs of our community for decades to come.

From a technical and economic perspective, the practicality of biomass is convincingly demonstrated by GRU's own Black and Veatch report of March 2004, which was suppressed until it was obtained by citizen activists in November.

Can biomass be used without causing unacceptable forest ecosystem degradation and deforestation? Yes, if our elected officials establish firm limits on biomass use based on accurate and independent information. Just Google "chip-mill deforestation" to find out what happens when controls are inadequate.

Can forests of the region be harvested in an environmentally sustainable manner? Yes. Wood is essentially a form of solar energy produced by plants through photosynthesis and is therefore renewable.

Trees planted on land previously in pasture, corn or tobacco are just another crop, but one requiring far less cultivation and labor, and far fewer agricultural chemicals.

Therefore, erosion and runoff of chemicals from plantations will be less than from cropland.

Harvest as biomass fuel (or pulpwood) may occur in two cuts: a thinning and a final cut after about 25 years, followed by replanting.

The timber industry's common practice of windrowing and burning slash (tree limbs and sometimes roots) should be avoided because of the loss of nutrients that are concentrated in the leaves and small branches. Slash should be spread out to rot and enrich the soil.

In addition to plantation biomass, large numbers of trees are cut due to urban expansion, trees that fall during storms are picked up and either burned or dumped in landfills, and branches are periodically trimmed from trees along electrical transmission lines.

The situation with natural forests is more complex. Management of a natural forest has the dual objectives of producing wood and other products while also maintaining the integrity of the forest ecosystem.

This requires a variety of management decisions and actions, such as cutting no more than the annual growth increment of the trees, carefully using machinery to keep from destroying ground cover and protecting endangered species.

Fortunately, safeguards are available that can be required by the wood purchaser to assure the public that management is sustainable.

The Forest Stewardship Council ( has developed a set of regional standards specifically for forests of the southeastern United States.

If followed, these standards will ascertain that forest management is ecologically, socially and economically sustainable.

The standards apply to both natural and planted forests.

A GRU requirement that forest biomass fuel be from FSC-certified properties would assure the public that environmental concerns are effectively met.

Joshua C. Dickinson III is executive director of the Forest Management Trust. He lives in Gainesville.

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