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Mining the soil: Biomass, the unsustainable energy source

Written by Atheo | Aletho News | December 26, 2009

The promotional material from Big Green Energy, aka Biomass Gas & Electric, presents biomass as “clean, renewable energy”, sustainable and green. The US Department of Energy uses the terms “clean and renewable” when introducing visitors at its website to the topic.

But is it accurate to describe the repeated removal of biomass from agricultural or forested lands as sustainable?

A quick review of some basics on the role of organic matter in soils belies the claim.

To support healthy plant life, soil must contain organic matter, plants don’t thrive on minerals and photosynthesis alone. As organic matter breaks down in soil nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur are released. Organic matter is the main source of energy (food) for microorganisms. A higher level of microbial activity at a plant’s root zone increases the rate of nutrient transfer to the plant.  As the organic matter decreases in soil so does this biochemical activity. Without organic matter, soil biochemical activity would nearly stop.

In addition to being a storehouse of nutrients, decaying plant matter keeps soil loose, helping soil remain both porous and permeable as well as gaining better water holding capacity. This is not only beneficial to plant growth but is essential for soil stability. Soil becomes more susceptible to erosion of all types as organic matter content is reduced.

The value of returning organic matter to the soil has been well-known to farmers since the earliest days of agriculture. Crop residues and animal waste are tilled back into the soil to promote fertility.

Denny Haldeman of the Dogwood Alliance asserts that there is no documentation of the sustainability of repeated biomass removals on most soil types. Most documentation points to nutrient losses, soil depletion and decreased productivity in just one or two generations.

A cursory search of the Department of Energy website does not reveal that they have given the issue of soil fertility any consideration at all. However the biomass industry is supported by both Federal and State governments through five main advantages: tax credits, subsidies, research, Renewable Portfolio Standards, and preferential pricing afforded to technologies that are labeled “renewable” energy. Without government support, biomass power plants wouldn’t be viable outside of a very limited number of co-generation facilities operating within lumber mills. But under the Sisyphean imperative of “energy independence”, and with generous access to public assistance, the extraction of biomass from our farmlands and public forests is set to have a big impact on land use (or abuse).

In sustainable farming, manure is not “waste”

The creation of an artificial market for agricultural “wastes” harms entire local agricultural economies. In Minnesota, organic farmers are concerned that a proposed turkey waste incinerator will drive up the price of poultry manure by burning nearly half of the state’s supply. The establishment of biomass power generation will likely make it more difficult for family farms to compete with confined animal feeding operations and will contribute generally to the demise of traditional (sustainable) agricultural practices.

Similar economic damage will occur in the forest products industries. Dedicating acreage  to servicing biomass wood burners denies its use for lumber or paper. Ultimately, the consumer will shoulder the loss in the form of higher prices for forest products.

As available sources of forest biomass near the new power plants diminish, clear-cutting and conversion of native forests into biomass plantations will occur, resulting in the destruction of wildlife habitat. Marginal lands which may not have been previously farmed will be targeted for planting energy crops. These lands frequently have steeper grades, and erosion, sedimentation and flooding will be the inevitable result.

It gets worse.

Municipal solid waste as well as sewage sludge is mixed with the biomass and burned in locations where garbage incineration was  traditionally disallowed due to concerns over public health. Dioxins and furans are emitted in copious quantity from these “green” energy plants. Waste incineration is already the largest source of dioxin, the most toxic chemical known. Providing increased waste disposal capacity only adds to the waste problem because it reduces the costs associated with waste generation making recycling that much more uneconomic. In terms of dangerous toxins, land-filling is preferable to incineration. The ash that is left after incineration will be used in fertilizers introducing the dangerous residual heavy metals into the food supply.

In reality biomass fuel isn’t sustainable or “clean”.

###

Update February 3, 2011:

In a new study funded by the USDA Agriculture Research Service, scientists simulated experiments lasting from 79 to 134 years. Hero Gollany, the author of the study, summarizes:

“Harvesting substantial amounts of crop residue under current cropping systems without exogenous carbon (e.g., manure) addition would deplete soil organic carbon, exacerbate risks of soil erosion, increase non-point source pollution, degrade soil, reduce crop yields per unit input of fertilizer and water, and decrease agricultural sustainability.”

Update – Summit Voice, April 19, 2012:

Report: Large-scale forest biomass energy not sustainable

Forest biomass questioned as fuel source

SUMMIT COUNTY — Large-scale use of forest biomass for energy production may be unsustainable and is likely to increase greenhouse gas emissions in the long run, according to a new study.

The research was done by the Max-Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Germany, Oregon State University, and other universities in Switzerland, Austria and France. The work was supported by several agencies in Europe and the U.S. Department of Energy.

The results show that a significant shift to forest biomass energy production would create a substantial risk of sacrificing forest integrity and sustainability… Full article

###

Also by Atheo:

January 9, 2012

Three Mile Island, Global Warming and the CIA

November 13, 2011

US forces to fight Boko Haram in Nigeria

September 19, 2011

Bush regime retread, Philip Zelikow, appointed to Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board

March 8, 2011

Investment bankers salivate over North Africa

January 2, 2011

Top Israel Lobby Senator Proposes Permanent US Air Bases For Afghanistan

October 10, 2010

A huge setback for, if not the end of, the American nuclear renaissance

July 5, 2010

Progressive ‘Green’ Counterinsurgency

February 25, 2010

Look out for the nuclear bomb coming with your electric bill

February 7, 2010

The saturated fat scam: What’s the real story?

January 5, 2010 – Updated February 16, 2010:

Biodiesel flickers out leaving investors burned

December 19, 2009

Carbonphobia, the real environmental threat

December 4, 2009

There’s more to climate fraud than just tax hikes

May 9, 2009

Obama, Starving Africans and the Israel Lobby

December 23, 2009 - Posted by | Author: Atheo, Deception, Economics, Environmentalism, Malthusian Ideology, Phony Scarcity, Science and Pseudo-Science | , , , , , , , , , ,

18 Comments »

  1. Excellent information! Thank you.

    Comment by hopeforcleanwater | December 26, 2009 | Reply

  2. I am very skeptical of the “organic” farming claims concerning the turkey waste incinerator (link appears to be broken though). I live in a state where poultry waste is dumped onto fields. This poultry waste comes from the MANY chicken houses for food and eggs. This litter is full of antibiotics, insane amounts of phosphates, and the stench is dreadful. The runoff from this affects the drinking water, the rivers, and the lakes.

    For these reasons, I’d much rather have a power plant run from the manure than use pastures as land dumps. Maybe it would be different if the poultry feed came from this area, but it doesn’t.

    Honestly, this article sounds like it was written by a poultry industry executive.

    Comment by Aris | December 26, 2009 | Reply

  3. Aris,

    Yes, water quality can be threatened when excessive concentrations of manure are applied to fields without proper application. But the environmental impact from the manure would be worse if the manure is incinerated. This is widely accepted among the environmental community and is cited in the following papers:

    Muller, Alan, Green Delaware, Letter to Liz Robinson, Mid-Atlantic Green-e Advisory Committee “Regarding: Use of ‘Green-e’ to promote incineration in Delaware and elsewhere,” February 24, 2000.

    Mills, Robin, Maryland Safe Energy Coalition, statements at Mid-Atlantic Green-e Advisory Committee meeting February 24, 2000.

    By the way Aris, the poultry industry would like nothing better than to have electric ratepayers forced to pay for their litter. Opting for incineration in your case may very well be jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

    Comment by aletho | December 26, 2009 | Reply

  4. Soil organic matter is renewable to an almost endless extent because 95%+ of organic matter is made up of the air and water elements carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen. Any time plants grow they put an equal amount of roots into the ground as they do leaves and stems above ground.

    It is better if as much as possible of ALL the plant matter is returned, but as long as one is taking any part away and not returning it, what is being mined are the soil minerals that don’t come from air and water. The soil does not have an endless supply of mineral nutrients to draw on; this is especially true for the trace minerals like copper, zinc, selenium etc. which are usually not replaced by commercial fertilizers. How many crops can be grown on and taken away from a given soil before those essential minerals are gone?

    It’s a much bigger picture than just harvesting and burning biomass; it is and has been happening worldwide for a long time. As the soil minerals decline so do the nutrient levels of the food crops and the health of the people and animals who eat them.

    Comment by m_astera | December 26, 2009 | Reply

  5. There is nothing environmentally friendly about biomass energy production when it involves the destruction of forestlands such as those owned by Neenah Paper Company in Nova Scotia Canada.

    http://halifax.mediacoop.ca/story/2241

    Comment by Susan Lerner | December 28, 2009 | Reply

  6. Regarding M-astera’s points

    If I understand you correctly you are saying that mining soil minerals should be of more concern that mining soil OM. You also say that soil organic matter is renewable to an almost endless extent. A couple questions:

    Is this even when 50% of the biomass is regularly removed?

    Can you speak to the cost and effort of ammending soil to increase its OM compared to ammending soil to increase its
    mineral content particularly the trace minerals ?

    Chip

    Chip

    Comment by Chip | December 29, 2009 | Reply

  7. There are a lot of concerns being addressed here. Rather than attempt to address each and every one, let me simply point out that the following learned experts ALL support biomass energy:
    James Hansen, James Lovelock, Bill McKibben, and Al Gore.

    Even Tim Searchinger, reknowned for his criticisms of biofuels, has recently endorsed the position that there are certain biomass feedstocks which are sustainable.

    They are
    + Perennial plants grown on degraded lands abandoned from agricultural use
    + Crop residues
    + Sustainably harvested wood and forest residues
    + Double crops and mixed cropping systems
    + Municipal and industrial wastes

    This is from a SCIENCE Magazine article, in which 11 scientists published a consensus paper on the types of biomass that are most sustainable:

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/07/090716141219.htm

    Meanwhile, here is another article by the Union of Concerned Scientists:

    http://bit.ly/IfDoneRightBiomass

    If so many scientists are convinced we can do it right, why is it that lay-people are so convinced we cannot?

    I think it is because it is so complex. There are many variables and uncertainties. But the two things I know for certain is that coal is dangerous, toxic, and climate change is already harming our forests (e.g., pine beetles, diseases, droughts, fires, and severe weather events). In many parts of the country, biomass electricity is the only baseload renewable which can immediately replace coal. We cannot dismiss it summarily.

    In Northern Europe they’ve been generating biomass electricity and heat in neighborhoods for decades. They collect the clean wood ash and return it to the forest soil.

    Finland is about 74% forested, and produces 20% of its energy from biomass. Sweden is 67% forested, producing 27% of its energy from biomass.

    The Southeast is 50% forested, so we ought to be able to produce at least 5% or 10% of our electricity from wood, sustainably. But it’s going to take everything we can muster to fight climate change — solar PV, solar thermal, wind, small-hydro, biomass, efficiency, etc.

    Here are two studies indicating how the Southeastern United States can achieve 25% of our energy from diverse renewables:

    SACE “Southern Solutions”

    http://bit.ly/SACE_RES

    WRI “Local Clean Energy” Report (30% RES)

    http://bit.ly/WRI-RES

    You’ll note that both studies emphasize that we MUST invest heavily in energy efficiency and conservation FIRST.

    Comment by John Bonitz | January 4, 2010 | Reply

  8. John Bonitz,

    It’s too bad that you are not familiar enough with the subject to address the issues raised in the article. One wonders why, with your lack of knowledge, you feel the need to contest the premise.

    Appeals to authority are a poor method of argument reminiscent of flat Earth dark age mentality. Besides, the infamous characters you cite are widely discredited. Lovelock is a misanthrope who promotes the nuclear industry. Gore has been lobbying for the nuclear industry since the 1970’s. All are shameless alarmists.

    Since you have failed to challenge any of the actual points in the article it is hard to enter into dialog here, but I will go ahead and question the alarmism that you utilize in your comment as an opportunity to challenge your dogmatism. I accept that you concede every point in the article and I will address your stated fear.

    If you feel that pine beetles will soon decimate forests in some unprecedented manner that will threaten the ecology please explain how forests have persevered all these eons since pine beetles first evolved.

    Comment by aletho | January 4, 2010 | Reply

    • Oh my, that’s not a very friendly response.

      Regardless, the reason pine beetles are an unprecedented threat is that the climate has warmed, and forests in Colorado, etc., no longer freeze hard enough to limit the spread of the insect. I would never use pine beetles in Colorado to justify timber salvage from forests in Western Massachusetts. Every region has its own particulars.

      Here in the Southeast where I live and work, we have tree farms. Many millions of acres of them. And the industries that consumed these trees have now shut-down, left for other countries. In some regions of the Southeast, pine trees are the only thing the soil can grow. If biopower can help us displace coal, and if the trees are replanted (or naturally regenerated), and this is certifed under FSC, SFI, BMPs, etc., then this is clearly more sustainable than coal.

      The reason I offered the list of experts is to point out that there are people who have thought long and hard about this. Do you similarly dismiss the famous biofuels critic Tim Searchinger? I value his endorsement of the position that certain types of biomass are sustainable.

      I would appreciate your response to the successful precedent in Northern Europe. I’ve heard no reports of devastating soil collapse, forest destruction, desertification, etc. from Sweden, Finland, Denmark, etc. To my eye this is proof that biopower can be sustainable. Can you explain otherwise?

      Also, how do you explain the prehistoric Brazilian evidence? Terra Preta is ancient charred wood biomass, put there by the indigenous people. Soils with high biochar content are more fertile than un-modified Amazonian soils. This is proof that biomass can IMPROVE soils.

      And with engineered systems we can pyrolize the biomass, extracting energy while making biochar to rebuild the soils and permanently sequester carbon. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terra_preta

      There are TWO challenges to the points in your blogpost.

      Cheers!
      John

      Comment by John Bonitz | January 4, 2010 | Reply

      • John,

        The US has centuries worth of readily accessible coal whereas soil depleted of organic matter would not likely reproduce forests for such a period. Clearly your contention that bio-mass is more sustainable than reliance on coal is not supported on any empirical basis.

        Your further assertion that there is an unprecedented pine beetle threat in Colorado is risible. Colorado has seen many warmer eras as well as innumerable pine beetle infestations.

        I wonder just how many generations of trees you think that Finland has produced?

        Comment by aletho | January 4, 2010 | Reply

  9. I’m puzzled. Apparently I made the mistaken assumption that this dialogue was predicated on the existence of anthropogenic climate change. Do you believe that climate change is NOT exacerbated by coal burning?

    Comment by John Bonitz | January 4, 2010 | Reply

    • John you appear to be attempting to change the subject.

      In what way has my contention that biofuel is unsustainable been predicated on AGW anyhow?

      Please try to stay on topic and if you can’t defend your assertions please admit the fact.

      Comment by aletho | January 4, 2010 | Reply

  10. No, I did not change the subject: Climate change is fundamental to this discussion, because we’re discussing biomass as a solution to climate change.

    I have no problem defending my assertions. I assert that coal is worse than biomass. But if you do not believe that coal is exacerbating climate change, then there is no point in continuing the dialogue.

    For anyone reading closely, I think you’ve made it perfectly clear that you don’t believe humans are causing climate change.

    Thank you very much!

    Comment by John Bonitz | January 4, 2010 | Reply

    • John if you are trying to say we have been discussing biomass energy as a means to reduce CO2 emissions you are in error. However if you are now attempting to propose the use of biomass fuel as a way to relieve your carbon-phobia you are equally in error.

      There is just no way to show that burning biomass does not result in more CO2 emissions than allowing trees, chaff and manure to return to the earth. Sequestering carbon based biomass into the earth is obviously preferable. The inane claims to the contrary are both illogical and contrary to any empirical grounding. Transporting the forest to the power plant, burning it, and transporting the non-emitted carbon back to the stripped land immediately causes the release of far more CO2 than even a forest fire would, this has been established in peer reviewed work by Professors at Oregon State University. So John, if you are selling biomass as an AGW “solution”, you are selling a fraudulent idea.

      Comment by aletho | January 4, 2010 | Reply

  11. John,

    In response to your proposed soil regime:

    “how do you explain the prehistoric Brazilian evidence? Terra Preta is ancient charred wood biomass, put there by the indigenous people. Soils with high biochar content are more fertile than un-modified Amazonian soils. This is proof that biomass can IMPROVE soils.

    And with engineered systems we can pyrolize the biomass, extracting energy while making biochar to rebuild the soils and permanently sequester carbon.”

    Yes, it is now widely accepted that, contrary to long held mythology, indigenous Amazonians have practiced slash and burn rotational agriculture for thousands of years.

    The process of removing manure and chaff from agriculture would be an entirely different situation and not immediately comparable with a slash and burn system where land is allowed to return to a forested state for a century before re-use. In regard to forestry management, sound preservation of habitat and diversity would preclude the mechanical vacuuming of biomass and returning of ash. Besides these existing and proposed power plants burn a mixture of biomass and coal and or garbage and coal.

    Sorry. I don’t buy the propaganda that says we should incinerate our trash and dump the remains onto forests.

    Comment by aletho | January 4, 2010 | Reply

  12. [...] Aletho News | December 26, 2009 [...]

    Pingback by Mining the soil: Biomass, the unsustainable energy source | Dailycensored.com | January 5, 2010 | Reply

  13. Biomass burning is bad news for many reasons,including depletion of soil fiber (as discussed in the article) and that emissions of air pollutants are typically similar or higher than from coal burning.

    But there is an error in this story. The turkey-litter burner in Minnesota isn’t just proposed, it was built, and started up in 2007. The permit allows millions of pounds per year of air pollutants to be belched out. But even this lax permit has been violated, and the facility has recently been fined $65,000 by the industry-friendly Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
    People in North Carolina are now working hard to prevent the same mistake from being repeated in that state.
    Thanks for writing about the important subject.

    Alan Muller

    Comment by Alan Muller | January 17, 2010 | Reply

  14. Phosphates and the Pope’s Misconceptions about conception and science history

    by Tony Ryals

    * Environment
    * International

    The fate of phosphates is also the church’s fate.
    Rabbi’s and priests,like pope’s and the general population,also excrete about a pound and a half of phosphates from their bodies per year or per earth orbit.Approximately 25% of that phosphate is excreted after use by the human brain which means that on a psyco-physical level,by not recycling those phosphates we are literally throwing our dreams away.

    The pope’s apparent ignorance of science history and modern agricultural technology obscures from his vision the disastrous effects of his policy of unchecked population growth on future generations who will find “no food on the table” nor the resources with which to grow it. This ignorance also shows that the pope has no more expertise in the fields of agricultural science, population planning, or resoure management than the pope in Galileo’s time did in the area of astronomy.

    Pope’s Stances Lack Scientific Basis
    by Tony Ryals
    The Daily Californian September 22, 1987

    On Nov. 10, 1979, a meeting was held in Rome by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in honor of the 100th year anniversary of the birth of Albert Einstein. The meeting marked the first time in the history of the church, since the formation of its own science academy, that any pope had presided over such a session.

    This meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences may well be more memorable for Pope John Paul II’s statements regarding science, Galileo, and the church than for the honoring of the centenary of the birth of Einstein himself.

    In discussing the case of Galileo and the church, Pope John Paul II addressed the academy as follows:

    “Mr.President, you said very rightly that Galileo and Einstein each characterized an era. The greatness of Galileo is recognized by all, as is that of Einstein, but while today we honor the latter before the College of Cardinals in the apostolic palace, the former had to suffer much – we cannot deny it – from men and orgainzations within the church. The Vatican Council has recognized and deplored unwarranted interferences…”

    Approximately one year after his Pontifical Academy of Science speech on Galileo, the pope, in criticizing what he termed “artificial” methods birth control, made a notable statement on modern agriculture, simultaneously. The pope stated:

    “There are attacks on fecundity itself with means that human and Christian ethics must consider illicit… Instead of increasing the amount of bread on the table of a hungry humanity as a modern means of production can do today, there are thoughts of diminishing the number of those at the table through methods that are contrary to honesty. This is not worthy of civilization.”

    Now that the pope has pardoned Galileo for telling the church that the earth is in orbit around the sun, it is time to tell the pope that the other half of Aristotle’s church-approved cosmology has also come unglued. The “Four Element” concept (earth, air, fire and water) was the other half of the Aristotelian Earth-centered universe adopted by St.Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century.

    Although the Renaissance astronomers successfully challenged Aristotle’s and the church’s geocentric universe several centuries later, atoms still had not been discovered. For this reason the Four Elements remained intact and unchallenged long after the death of Galileo in 1642.

    The discovery of atoms in the last couple of centuries has totally transformed our concept of elements. The former “elements”, earth and air, are both composed of a variety of elements. We now know that even the ancient element “water” can be further divided into the elements of hydrogen and oxygen. And the element “fire” is now understood to be a form of radiation.

    Justus Von Liebig, the 19th century father of agricultural chemistry, and other pioneering chemists did to Aristotle’s Four Elements what the Renaissance astronomers did to Aristotle’s concept of the Earth as the center of the universe – they overturned it!

    Liebig first pointed out the for plants to utilize carbon dioxide in the air for growth, they must have adequate amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium in their soil. Unfortunately, in popularizing the N,P,K concept of modern chemical agriculture, Liebig paved the way for overreliance upon energy-intensive fossil fuel consumption in the mining of phosphorus and potassium as well as in industrial production of nitrogen fertilizers.

    We now know that for every orbit of the Earth around the sun – one year – the pope, each member of the Catholic Church, and everyone else on the planet consumes in their food and excretes from their bodies approximately two pounds of phosphorus and various quantities of nitrogen, calcium, potassium, iron, and other trace elements. All these elements generally go unrecycled, often into rivers and oceans or even municipal dumps, further enriching fertilizer industries (who will sell the farmers more for a price) at the expense of the Earth’s non-renewable mineral nutrient resources.

    When the remaining fossil fuels, particularly natural gas, are exhausted, only bacteria and blue-green algae utilizing phosphorus, potassium, and trace elements in “soil-culture” and “aqua-culture” will be likely candidates to fix atmospheric nitrogen for agricultural fertilization.

    Both the trade of grains and the direct trade of phosphates speed the depletion of our limited reserves of phosphate rock in the United States, which comes mainly from mining operations in Florida. Deposits in Idaho are also being mined, at present, and Armand Hammer of Occidental Petroleum has eyed public land near Ojai, Calif. to strip-mine for phosphates.

    We should realize the need to conserve our dwindling reserves of phosphates for future generations. The United States not long ago was a net exporter of petroleum, but now we are importers. The same situation could occur with phosphates if we refuse to learn from the past. Some researchers have suggested that we may become dependent upon yet a new OPEC (or Organization of Phosphate Exporting Countries), such as Morocco, with its relatively large rock phosphate reserves.

    The U.S. General Accounting Office estimates that our reserves of phosphorus will be depleted some time in the next century. This will inevitably lead to a food and population crisis that will make our oil crisis seem minor by comparison.

    The pope’s apparent ignorance of science history and modern agricultural technology obscures from his vision the disastrous effects of his policy of unchecked population growth on future generations who will find “no food on the table” nor the resources with which to grow it. This ignorance also shows that the pope has no more expertise in the fields of agricultural science, population planning, or resoure management than the pope in Galileo’s time did in the area of astronomy.

    The nutrients that subsidize the life of the pope, and everyone on the planet, are a finite resource. Unless the pope realizes the seriousness of the linear flow of elements through himself and the rest of humanity, he shall be partly responsible for contributing to the collapse of modern agriculture.

    To sum up, Pope John Paul II is as confused about the movement of atoms as the pope of Galileo’s time was about the movement of the Earth and celestial bodies. Based upon the rate of depletion of chemical fertilizers, the present pope does not have 300 years to re-evaluate his view on modern agriculture and birth control. The question still remains as to why the Pontifical Academy of Sciences has not made this disastrous movement of atoms clear to the pope.

    http://malta.indymedia.org/node/8796

    Comment by Tony Ryals | February 16, 2011 | Reply


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