‘Biomass: Helpful or Harmful?’: 2018 Sustainability Essay Contest Second-Place Winner

As we announced last week, the North Carolina Bar Association’s Environment, Energy & Natural Resources Section is pleased to announce the winners of its 2018 Sustainability Essay Contest.  A description of the contest and this year’s topic can be found here.  Please join us in congratulating this year’s winners.

Emily Liu:  “Wood Pellets as Biofuel: Is it Sustainable?”  FIRST PLACE  ($1000 prize + publication)

Catherine Trusky: “Biomass: Helpful or Harmful?”  SECOND PLACE ($500 prize)

Ann Winstead: “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle: Waste”  THIRD PLACE ($250 prize)

The text of Catherine Trusky’s second place essay, “Biomass: Helpful or Harmful?” is published below.  The third place entry was published on our blog last week, and the first place entry will be published in the coming weeks.

A special thanks to Professor Maria Savasta-Kennedy, Ted Feitshans, and Blakely Hildebrand for their time and effort coordinating this contest!

Biomass: Helpful or Harmful?

By Catherine Trusky

In today’s rapidly industrializing society, concerns about the future of the environment are becoming increasingly prevalent. In a world of vanishing forests and polluted air, the future looks increasingly bleak. Many North Carolinians have turned to woody biomass as a viable alternative to coal and natural gas; however, it is important to consider the potential environmental impacts of this source of energy, as not all sustainable resources are created equal. When facing the dangers presented by a rising global temperature, it is vital that American society supports options that will prove most effective in reducing net carbon emissions. Despite being seen by many as a sustainable alternative to North Carolina’s natural gas industry, woody biomass is, in fact, a carbon producing and environmentally harmful resource that need not be utilized in North Carolina’s efforts to reduce its carbon footprint.

Woody Biomass should not be considered a “sustainable” alternative to coal and natural gas. When taken as a whole, the use of woody biomass is harmful- not helpful- in reducing North Carolina’s net carbon emissions. In fact, it is disastrous to the very air we breathe: the high levels of carbon released in the transformation of plant matter to energy increases the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, in turn speeding the process of global warming. According to a census done by The Partnership for Policy Integrity, biomass burning power plants emit 150% the CO2 of coal plants and 300-400% the CO2 of natural gas plants per unit of energy produced.

These carbon emissions prove devastating to world health: they stimulate irregular weather patterns, heighten sea level rise, and destroy the jobs, homes, and livelihoods of people across the globe. Is it truly justifiable as a society to continue to release catastrohic levels of carbon into the atmosphere? North Carolinians must educate themselves on the truth behind many “sustainable” forms of energy production in order to make educated and informed decisions about the future of renewable energy in the state.

The calamitous results of biomass use on CO2 levels extends beyond emissions released by factories. Forests used in the production of woody biomass act as important carbon sinks: they store excess CO2 that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere. Using these forests for biofuel eliminates an important resource for reducing net carbon emissions. About two-thirds of the globe’s terrestrial carbon, exclusive of that sequestered in rocks and sediments, is sequestered in the standing forests, forest understory plants, leaf and forest debris, and in forest soils, according to the RFF. If released, this carbon would spur further temperature change, expose citizens to respiratory illness, and compound the expanding presence of pollutants in the air.

The destruction of the forests accompanying the use of biomass raises an entirely separate set of issues. The harvest of woody biomass to fuel biomatter plants has significant impacts on not only the atmosphere but on the environment as a whole. One study done by the US Department of Agriculture reports that on average, nearly four percent of American forests are harvested by the biomass industry annually. These forests are integral to the preservation of our global health: they absorb greenhouse gases, regulate water flow, and protect coastal communities from extreme floods and sea level rise. Forests and trees are a defining factor in mitigating the effects of climate change; without them, communities across the world will be ravaged by irregular weather patterns, rising sea levels, and worsening air quality- all of which can have detrimental impacts on human health. While the majority of large biomass producers have pledged to replenish the forests used in the production of woody biomass, they fail to inform the public that the resurgence rate of these forests is much slower than the rate of forests being destroyed. Trees take years- even decades- to mature; their long development makes it impossible for companies to replenish the world’s forests at the rate they are being destroyed. Biomass is also noted to have detrimental effects on biodiversity, both on a macro and microbiological scale. In fact, 43% of woody biomass comes from South America and other tropical forests where around 80% of the world’s species reside (“The Effects of Deforestation,” Pachamama Alliance.) Although North Carolina’s species diversity is not as staggering as in the tropical countries where the worst injustices are being perpetrated, NC houses a wide variety of species- think deer, foxes, and bears- that will face severe habitat loss if mass deforestation were to occur. Consequently, the forests of North Carolina will encounter ecosystem disruption, species extinction, and disproportional biological populations. Thus, it is essential in the future that the state of North Carolina protects its forests from economic exploitation.

The benefits of protecting the forest are far reaching: from the protection of endangered species to the preservation of natural beauty, defending the forests will help every organism, large and small.

But what about using agricultural crops for fuel, or other plants that have a shorter life cycle than trees? Plants with a yearly lifecycle – grasses, weeds, and other annuals- have significantly more innocuous net carbon emissions over time, as net carbon emitted by harvesting and burning can be re-grown in a shorter period. There is nothing inherently wrong with biomass in itself- we merely need to find more sustainable methods of harvesting the agricultural waste necessary to power biofuel plants.

Although biomass may seem like an environmental problem, it is proven to be a human problem as well. North Carolinians have had a long history of exploitation by power companies and oil conglomerates, and the biomass industry is no different.

Maryland-based biomass producer Enviva will soon open its fourth wood pellet plant in the southern part of North Carolina just outside of Dobbins Heights: a small, rural town where roughly 85 percent of residents are African American and the median household income is $21,000. By establishing power plants in remote agricultural communities like Dobbins Heights, companies such as Envivia are destroying the very livelihoods of the citizens they claim to protect. Enviva boasts that this power plant will bring 80 jobs that will pay nearly $40,000 a year. However, with the county unemployment rate at nearly four percent over the national average, the focus must be shifted towards the development of businesses that will provide a higher volume of labor for the struggling county. Moreover, the jobs Enviva proposes are not sustainable: there is a finite level of forests available for biomass production, and eventually, the plant will run out of the resources needed to power its energy production. Shipping large amounts of woody biomass remains costly and inefficient, thus, any notions of creating a central plant for nationwide biomass production is an impossibility. It is probable that the Enviva plant will shut down mere decades after its creation, putting dozens of citizens out of work once more. And this isn’t the only bad news for the citizens of Dobbins Heights.

According to data compiled by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin, citizens of Dobbins Heights have a higher rate of chronic respiratory disease and asthma than the state as a whole. These respiratory issues can cause illness, inability to participate in physical activity, and premature death in children and the elderly. Moreover, they have a hefty price tag, and for a county where the average income per household is $35,000 lower than the US average, the costs associated with these respiratory illnesses can prove disastrous. Without the means to pay off expensive medical bills, families in Dobbins Heights face a difficult decision: protecting the wellbeing of their loved one or remaining relatively free from financial strife. We as citizens can no longer let power companies like Envivia destroy the livelihoods of families like these, we must take steps in the future to prevent the exploitation of rural, impoverished communities that possess neither economic, social, or political means for defending themselves.

The impact of Biomass on the environment is unique in that it creates nearly as many problems as it solves. Looking to the future, we must find sustainable, healthy alternatives to coal and natural gas in order to maintain a growing, thriving globe.

Woody biomass is not the answer. However, we must find the answer soon, as the very future of the earth hangs in the balance. The decisions we make today will affect the well being of the planet for decades to come. Thus, it is essential that we continue to seek new and sustainable resources to power a thriving world of industry, innovation, and communication. Without sustainable methods of energy, there will be no ingenuity in the future. Without sustainable methods of energy, citizens across the globe will quickly begin to experience the devastating impacts of climate change on their daily lives. We must be willing to fight any battle, overcome any obstacle, ceaselessly continue the pursuit of new and better energy sources. We can no longer be content with “renewable” sources that destroy ecosystems and release harmful pollutants into the atmosphere- we must continually search for something newer, better, and more efficient in order to halt global warming. Woody biomass may not the answer. The answer may be difficult, even impossible, to achieve. But with time, persistence, and continued effort, the human race is capable of developing the technology to save the world.