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Biomass for Electricity Would Save 7.5 Gigatons of Carbon by 2050…But Perils Await

Burning biomass to produce electricity places #34 on Drawdown’s list of climate solutions. It could avoid 7.5 gigatons of atmospheric carbon dioxide by 2050 at a net cost of US$402.3 billion, with net savings of $519.4 billion.

“Imperfect, riddled with caveats, and probably necessary,” is how the Drawdown authors describe electricity from biomass. “Probably necessary” because, as a dispatchable form of energy, biomass can “aid the shift away from fossil fuels and buy time for flexible grid solutions to come online.”

But biomass energy generation is fraught with peril, Drawdown warns. In the ideal case, the carbon produced by processing and burning biomass is balanced by the carbon sequestered by immediate replacement planting of fast-growing perennials like switchgrass, or “so-called short-rotation woody crops” like poplar. But current practice is often far from ideal, with far too many U.S. and European operators grinding up entire mature trees into wood pellets for feedstock, rather than using slash waste from logging operations, as they often claim to be doing. [There are also serious concerns about biodiversity loss and other ecosystem impacts when mature forest is replaced by plantations.—Ed.]

While burning slash in the controlled environment of a biomass energy plant can deliver a net carbon benefit, by preventing the methane released when the slash is left to rot and the black soot released in open burns, there just isn’t enough wood waste available to feed demand, says Drawdown. So the biomass energy sector is, increasingly, turning to the living, carbon-sequestering forest—“a giant step backward,” the authors state.

Currently providing 2% of global electricity production, biomass energy is “on the rise in China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Brazil,” a surge in demand which makes it ever more urgent “to manage, through regulation, the drawbacks of biomass energy.” Alongside the immediate need to stop pelletizing of native forests, Drawdown says it’s the imperative to protect smallholder farmers from “displacement by industrial-scale approaches to biomass generation.”

“Most important to bear in mind,” the chapter stresses, “is that biomass—carefully regulated and managed—is a bridge to reach a clean energy future, not the destination itself.”