Some folks aren’t going to like the way this story goes, but Kristianstad, Sweden (pop. 80,000) went from 100% fossil fuel heat to 0% in only 20 years, using various forms of waste and biomass as fuel. Cost savings are into the millions of dollars. The New York Times story reports fuel derived from:
a motley assortment of ingredients like potato peels, manure, used cooking oil, stale cookies and pig intestines.
At first I wondered what this burn would smell like, but the waste is used at a biogas plant. Elsewhere, wood, pellets and other forms of biomass are used for heat and power.
Is this a model for U.S. cities trying to get off the fossil addiction? The argument advanced this fall by Plains Justice in its report on the economics and environmental impacts of biomass is that an agricultural state like Iowa may need to look to biomass to make a complete transition away from fossil fuels. This is the essence of sustainability, isn’t it? Look around for what nature offers you in abundance that can be used without lasting negative impacts on people and the ecosystem.
Kristianstad and many communities like it seem to have reached the same conclusion:
…(F)or many agricultural regions, a crucial component of the renewable energy mix has become gas extracted from biomass like farm and food waste. In Germany alone, about 5,000 biogas systems generate power, in many cases on individual farms.
But it’s the impacts – real and anticipated – that have many people agitated. When Plains Justice’s biomass report came out we were inundated with strong responses from people who oppose biomass of any kind. One biomass opponent admonished me:
Please research the facts and realize that by promoting biomass incineration, you are poisoning humans and the planet, with some of the most toxic chemicals known to science, including mercury, dioxin, and particulates.
By burning oat hulls and corn husks? Well, you learn something new every day. When I responded with questions about her conclusions, she admitted that she hadn’t read our report. I asked everyone who contacted Plains Justice to provide citations to any studies that could provide further insight into the environmental impacts of biomass. We found a few new relevant studies, which we linked on the blog post announcing the report.
Various groups are organizing biofuel and biomass opposition. A Massachusetts group called Stop Spewing Carbon opposes taxpayer subsidies for biomass incinerators in that state. Another organization, Biofuelwatch:
works to raise awareness of the negative impacts of industrial biofuels and bioenergy on biodiversity, human rights, food sovereignty and climate change. Based in UK and US, we work with national and international partners to expose and oppose the social and environmental damages resulting from bioenergy-driven increased demand for industrial agriculture and forestry monocultures. Biofuelwatch is European Focal Point of the Global Forest Coalition.
Concern expressed by these groups seems to center on woody biomass from forests, but our report on agriculture-sourced biomass wasn’t welcome either. There are many kinds of biomass. It can include trees, waste, field residue, agricultural processing waste – all kinds of things with vastly different biochemical profiles and emissions. And biogas may be more palatable to those concerned about land use and forest impacts.
Controversy attaches to all these forms of energy. As with any developing field of scientific experimentation, there’s also a jargon. Biochar is becoming a popular term. According to the International Biochar Initiative, biochar is:
a 2,000 year-old practice that converts agricultural waste into a soil enhancer that can hold carbon, boost food security and discourage deforestation. The process creates a fine-grained, highly porous charcoal that helps soils retain nutrients and water.
As you might expect, there are powerful interests pushing forms of biomass as potential offsets for large scale greenhouse gas emissions. ConocoPhillips, for example, is sponsoring an initiative called Biochar Protocol Development, trying to establish the ground rules for offsetting. (And before you ask, no Plains Justice isn’t funded by anyone who’s trying to promote biochar. We’re just trying to figure out how to make progress on a fiendishly difficult problem in a place where the political atmosphere defies our efforts at every turn.)
Getting back to Kristianstad’s success with biogas (harvested as methane and burned for electricity and heat), the Times reports that the U.S. has enormous potential for similar biogas harvesting but faces the hurdles of high initial cost, scant government financing and lack of a business model. Personally I’ve talked to a number of farmers with livestock operations that produce large amounts of methane who would love to find an economic way to harvest that gas to run other energy-intensive farm operations, like corn-drying. A fringe benefit is reduction of extremely greenhouse gas-intensive methane emissions. But in my head I also hear the voices of people who choke on the concept of supporting the economics of a farmer who’s operating a large livestock confinement and planting monoculture crops, with all the resulting severe environmental impacts. But I’ve seen municipal landfill methane harvesting proceed without a hitch in U.S. cities, so maybe we’re onto something there.
All I can say is, if we come up with successful ways to tackle the greenhouse gas imbalance, a lot of resources will be freed up for addressing other problems. To solve the climate challenge, we need every possible arrow in the quiver. Some of them are likely to be ugly. Do we only want to get atmospheric carbon below 350 parts per million if we can do it in ways that are universally appealing to environmentalists, or is our task an absolute?