Every time I read about biomass and biofuel I get worried. Biomass is a fancy word for dried out plants. The word is used a lot these days to describe stuff that can be burned as fuel. There's also a lot of talk about biomass being able to substitute for fossil fuel use, and discussion about how biomass as biofuel releases less carbon dioxide into the air. (Carbon dioxide is one of the greenhouse gases that contributes to global warming)
On Wednesday, March 10/10 there was a 'green energy' conference in London, Ontario titled 'Growing the Margins'. (I'm not sure what margins are meant) The London Free Press newspaper had two short articles about the conference.
One article (1) was about how burning biomass was viewed as an alternative to dirty coal. Robert Lyng of Ontario Power Generation was quoted in the article as saying: '... when you compare biomass with other forms of alternative energy, it's not too bad'. He also mentioned that biomass produces less energy than coal and it's perhaps necessary to supplement it with natural gas in a generating plant.
To me, this does not sound like an endorsement.
The other article (2) talked about how 'the collapse of Ontario's tobacco industry presents an opportunity to grow new energy-rich perennial crops that could be used as fuel' and that the switchgrass and Miscanthus (another grass) grow well on the 'sandy soils of the former tobacco belt that aren't viable for many traditional crops'.
Well, when I looked up Miscanthus on Wikipedia (I know, not a full search ... but the Wik is usually a good start), it was described as 'rapid growth, low mineral content, and high biomass' and therefore good as a biofuel. But it went on to say that when it is burned the 'CO2 emissions are equal to the amount of CO2 that the plant used up from the atmosphere during its growing phase, and thus the process is greenhouse gas-neutral, if one does not consider any fossil fuels that might have been used in planting, fertilizing, or harvesting the crop, or in transporting the biofuel to the point of use. When mixed in a 50%-50% mixture with coal, it can be used in some current coal-burning power plants without modification'.
Does this sound to you like an endorsement of this Miscanthus as a fuel? It doesn't sound that way to me. Fossil fuel energy is used up in synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and various pieces of heavy agricultural equipment and trucks to grow and ship a plant that isn't nutritious enought to be useful as animal fodder and not very useful as soil enhancer (if it were even left to decompose on the soil). And it has to be burned with a dirty fuel to do the job of another type of fuel.
No, this does not sound like a good idea to me.
From the first time I head about biomass and biofuels I've wondered what the effects are on soil health of not returning this biological mass to the soil ... meaning, if the leftovers aren't being left on the soil to rot and return nutrient and 'bulk' to the soil, surely this is a depletion of the soil health.
And I worry about the farmers who are being forced by economic forces to get into such crops. How much money are they going to sink into all the fossil-fuel based synthetic inputs and specialized equipment? What stress is there in experimenting with this new way of going into debt and gambling on market forces? And what does it take from them to fit their minds around growing crops only to see them burned up?
Just some things to think about. Best regards. Why's Woman
(1) Burning Biomass viewed as aternative to dirty coal. H. Daniszewski, London Free Press, March 11/10.
(2) Farmers Key to Green Energy. H. Daniszewski, London Free Press, March 11/10.