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Trees, Trash, and Toxins: How Biomass Energy Has Become the New Coal

By Mary S. Booth, PhD - Partnership for Policy Integrity, April 2, 2014

The biomass power industry is undergoing a new surge of growth in the United States. While bioenergy has traditionally been used by certain sectors such as the paper-making industry, more than 70 new wood-burning plants have been built or are underway since 2005, and another 75 proposed and in various stages of development, fueled by renewable energy subsidies and federal tax credits. In most states, biomass power is subsidized along with solar and wind as green, renewable energy, and biomass plant developers routinely tell host communities that biomass power is “clean energy.”

But this first-ever detailed analysis of the bioenergy industry reveals that the rebooted industry is still a major polluter. Comparison of permits from modern coal,biomass, and gas plants shows that a even the “cleanest” biomass plants can emit > 150% the nitrogen oxides, > 600% the volatile organic compounds, > 190% the particulate matter, and > 125% the carbon monoxide of a coal plant per megawatt-hour, although coal produces more sulfur dioxide (SO2). Emissions from a biomass plant exceed those from a natural gas plant by more than 800% for every major pollutant.

Biomass power plants are also a danger to the climate, emitting nearly 50 percent more CO2 per megawatt generated than the next biggest carbon polluter, coal. Emissions ofCO2from biomass burning can theoretically be offset over time, but such offsets typically take decades to fully compensate for the CO2rapidly injected into the atmosphere during plant operation.

Compounding the problem, bioenergy facilities take advantage of gaping loopholes in the Clean Air Actand lax regulation by the EPAand state permitting agencies, which allow them to emit even more pollution. Electricity generation that worsens air pollution and climate change is not what the public expects for its scarce renewable energy dollars.

Read the report (PDF).

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