According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), which was formed during the oil shocks of the early 1970s to help ward off future energy shortages, biomass combustion is a carbon-neutral process because the carbon dioxide released at burning has previously been absorbed by the plants from the atmosphere.
Biomass resources, reports IEA, include agricultural residues, animal manure, wood wastes, food and paper industry residues, municipal green wastes, sewage sludge, and a large variety of grasses and crops.
Deforestation isn't the only problem with biomass. Burning biomass also produces sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and other toxins harmful to our health. Two California wood-fired power plants were fined $830,000 under the Clean Air Act recently for violating emissions standards.
And then there is the issue of the efficiency of biomass as a fuel feedstock. Researchers have found that some common forms of biomass yield only 25 or 30 percent the amount of energy as an equivalent amount of coal. The 2011 closure of a biomass conversion plant in Georgia that reportedly spent $320 million to produce just 100,000 gallons of ethanol stands out as another black mark against biomass.
Biomass can be a part of the effort to cut back on fossil fuels, but only if it is harvested and used in ways that reduce pollution, cut emissions and protect forests. NRDC and other green groups would like to see Congress impose stricter rules to rein in soot, smog and greenhouse gases at biomass power plants and pass measures that safeguard forests from deforestation for biomass development.
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