New Plains Justice Biomass Report

Update: Jill DeWitt of Audubon Missouri alerted us to an October 4, 2010 publication (too late to be included in our report) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences titled “Bird communities in future bioenergy landscapes of the Upper Midwest,” which gives insight into the impact on bird habitat of row crops versus perennial grasses. I’d also like to point out the Land Institute’s perennial grain cropping research, which could be important to making the right decisions on biomass.

Original Post: Today Plains Justice released a report that shows Iowa could replace much of the coal it burns in power plants and industrial boilers with a clean, homegrown fuel – corn stalks and leaves, perennial grasses, by-products from agricultural processing and other agricultural products that are currently unused, underused, or thrown away. “Burning corn stover in power plants would give farmers an income boost while helping to keep Iowa’s air clean by reducing the amount of coal burned to produce electricity,” said Nicole Shalla, a Plains Justice attorney. The report analyzes the comparative emissions from coal and forms of ag-based biomass, discusses biomass ash, and gives technical detail about how biomass can be used to displace fossil fuels.


Grain combine harvester with stalk-gathering head, collecting stalk and leaf in the front wagon and cob and husk in the rear wagon


“Any way we can localize economics and create profits that stay in the communities, the better it is for rural Iowa,” adds Chris Petersen, President of Iowa Farmers Union, a partner in production of the report. Corn stalks and leaves – commonly called corn stover – are a waste product left over from growing field corn.

The report shows that Iowa produces 68.3 million tons of corn stover a year, as well as 20.4 million tons of soybean residue. While some of the corn and soybean residues need to remain on the land to keep soil healthy, much is readily available for fuel.

“For every $1 million spent to purchase feedstock for power generation, local communities would receive an estimated $7.4 million in income and about 97 jobs would be generated. This revenue would offset up to $15.5 million from the coal industry, most of which benefits industries outside of Iowa,” said Mark Mba Wright, an Iowa State University doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering, who authored the report.

In addition to the economic benefits, biomass offers an opportunity to improve the economics of ethanol plants, which could use their own waste to replace the coal and natural gas that currently power many biofuel refineries.


Members of Congress visit NREL's cellulosic ethanol pilot plant.


The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has an interactive map showing locations of corn stover and other biomass fuelstocks throughout the U.S.

This report takes on some questions about the environmental impact of biomass and points out needs for additional research. We know a great deal about the impacts of corn and soybean mono-cropping. Would increased use of biomass as a fuel source simply prop up unsustainable forms of agriculture, or could it be structured to support the reintroduction of perennial prairie grasses? We need to know more about biomass. This study is a start.

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9 Responses to New Plains Justice Biomass Report

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention New Plains Justice Biomass Report | Plains Justice Today --

  2. And emissions? PM 2.5, nox, etc? Let’s see the charts. Why? Because “biomass” is highly polluting.

    • claseur says:

      Analysis of emissions from biomass combustion, including criteria pollutants and greenhouse gases, starts at page 54 of the PDF and page 48 in the page numbering. Tables 16, 17 and 18 provide emissions comparisons. The following section discusses ash composition.

      • Alan Muller says:

        I read this part carefully and there is no meaningful comparison of carbon vs “biomass” emissions.

        Table 16, for example, compares emissions for different types of stoves. But what does this have to do with industrial power plants? Nothing that I can see.

        On page 47 I read:

        “As shown in Table 13, biomass co-­-firing can significantly reduce emissions of these compounds in coal plants. A coal-­-fired power plant emits about 3.29 Mg of CO2 equivalent CO2, 47.2 kg of CO2 equivalent SO2, and 0.02 g of C2H4 per Mg of CO2. Replacing 100% of coal with biomass in the same plant would lower emissions to 5.65 kg of SO2 per Mg of biomass, and negligible quantities of CO2 and C2H4.”

        But coal plants vary extremely, and we need to know what we are comparing with what. This *seems* to be comparing the sulfur oxide emissions of a coal plant without any scrubbers.
        Biomass promoters always seems to focus on sulfur emissions because most “biomass” is relatively low in S. They ignore particulate and HCl emissions because “biomass” is often high in those areas. But this sort of selective “cherry picking” has no place in honest reporting.

        By the way, Methane is CH4. C2H4 is ethylene, not a major components of boiler emissions.

        I agree that CO2 emissions/mmBTU could be a bit lower, but only to the extent that the hydrogen/carbon ration of the fuel was higher, giving more H2O and less CO2 as products of combustion. The carbon neutrality argument doesn’t hold any water.

        This report leaves me wondering if Plains Justice has grant or other funding specific to the promotion of biomass burning? Carrie, is this the case?

        Alan Muller

  3. Alan Muller says:

    This is a very unsatisfactory report on many levels. Consider this statement:

    “Biomass is a renewable fuel with positive environmental impacts. Conversion
    of short-­term rotation feedstock into energy has net zero emissions over
    a period of 12 years or less.”

    This simply makes no sense. I’ll confine myself to pointing out that stuff is not “converted into energy” by burning it.

    Lots of people are cheerleading for “biomass.” But almost every objective analysis of biomass projects indicates they have very negative implications for air quality, land use, and carbon emissions.

    Alan Muller
    Green Delaware

  4. Mike Ewall says:

    Biomass is no solution to coal. Both are serious problems. Iowa’s own Chariton Valley Biomass Project’s experience showed 7 times higher chlorine levels in the Iowa-grown switchgrass that was co-fired with coal in Iowa’s Ottumwa Generating Station. See this documented on our biomass webpage at: Once commercialized and done at large scale, even the supposedly “green” switchgrass form of biomass is likely to be biotech switchgrass, as the industry has been planning for years. In reality, most biomass isn’t grasses or crops, but trees from felled forests or waste streams contaminated with many toxins, as burners can get paid to take wastes instead of paying for the mythical organic grasses that enviros excited about biomass seem to think will be used.

    Please also look at the other toxics issues as well as the Manomet study, commissioned by the state of Massachusetts, showing that biomass is actually worse than coal in terms of global warming emissions. Find this all at

  5. claseur says:

    @ Alan: No, we don’t have any funding to “promote” biomass burning. This report was funded by a grant to do work on alternatives to coal that would be workable in Iowa. The author is a doctoral candidate at Iowa State University, and our brief to him was to provide a review of the state of research on ag-sourced biomass. We went over the report in detail with him a couple of times, trying to tease out as much detail as possible about environmental impacts. In a lot of cases, the research just hasn’t been done. We didn’t have funding for a major new study that would provide the kind of info you’re looking for about comparative emissions of criteria pollutants, so one of our conclusions is that a lot more research of that kind needs to be done. I don’t know what Delaware is like, but Iowa is >80% dependent on coal for electricity, and if we want to build a coalition around a shift to cleaner energy, we can’t afford to dismiss out of hand an alternative that would strengthen the farm economy.

    • Alan Muller says:


      I’m not going to post any more about this. But there is lots of data on the relative emissions of coal and “biomass,” it just isn’t in your report.

      I don’t work in Iowa, but I’m familiar with the “biomass” scene in Minnesota. Lots of cheerleading for it by academics and “enviros” who should know better. But actual biomass projects always prove to have high emissions of both greenhouse gases and traditional health-damaging air pollutants.

      Even more disturbing that this, perhaps, is the notion that corn stover can be taken off fields without negative impacts on soil quality, or that prairie grasses could be cropped intensively without (chemical) nutrient inputs.

      I suppose it is normal for short-term cash to be more noticeable to economically-stressed folk than health and long-term ecological impacts. But is it right to further distort these issues …?


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