Ramble On

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Biomass Energy Stakeholders - for and against

The biomass energy question is one that hits a lot of stakeholder sensitivities – those concerned with the environment (whether that is at a basic level of awareness, or involves a broader, systematic concern); those concerned with continued development and the accompanying growth in energy use (sustainable or not); and of course, the industries that would be affected by legislation and would see operating costs increase.

So for this post, I want to spend some time looking at environmental issues around the biomass combustion process, focused on poultry litter. I won’t be comprehensive here – the blog format doesn’t really provide for that, but I will touch on the things I have become aware of so far during the research.

There are quite a few “alternative energy stakeholders” that have weighed in on these questions. Some have active campaigns going – organizations like www.energyjustice.net and Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League (www.bredl.org ). They seek to raise awareness of issues and actively campaign against the initiatives that affect their constituency. As I’ve perused their materials and websites, I categorize them as “against” generally – and also “without answers” to some of the pressing issues in society today.

Some of their arguments are unsourced, and there are differing opinions on the accuracy of their analytical models. Frankly, it’s naïve to deny that there is a growing demand for energy in the world, and to think that we can pop up a wind turbine anywhere we want to answer that demand – and if that’s the only answer that can be given to why wind energy is better than biomass combustion energy, we’re not going to get very far.

Let’s take a look at two outputs of the combustion process: dioxin and nitrogen oxide. I read a paper (link below) analyzing dioxin sources in Denmark today – it looked at large-scale waste incineration and “residential wood combustion plants” as the two main sources of dioxin emissions. Emissions regulation increasingly requires filtration and treatment at plants, decreasing emissions by 17 percent by 2003. On the other hand, increasing residential use of pellet stoves and other wood fired heating appliances caused the impact from households to increase by 16 percent during that timeframe. My takeaway is that this is an example of an output that can be managed through regulation…first target is commercial and industrial users…but who is going to take on the residential part of this issue? It has to be a systematic approach, doesn’t it?

On the nitrogen oxide side of this analysis, from a Biomass Magazine article (linked below), I learned that managing this greenhouse gas was one of the reasons the Fibrominn plant took so long to become operational. Operating at this scale was part of the problem, but work on managing the gas was aggressive. In the end the plant was approved by the citizens’ council there in Benson.

There’s a lot more ground to cover on this topic. There is the issue of arsenic residue in chicken litter – where does that go in the process? I think it’s safe to say that if the litter is simply spread on the ground, it goes in the ground, then via runoff into local aquifers, into the Shenandoah River, Potomac River, and then to the Chesapeake Bay. So there’s an element of responsibility for problems inherent in the status quo, too. The problem is relevant to both sides of the question – using litter as a simple fertilizer or using it as fuel for electricity production, which suggests that both stakeholder groups should manage it.

For my next post on this topic, I want to try and find some information about how poultry litter impacts the Chesapeake – and what sorts of regulation are in place to manage those impacts. I’ll be looking at a paper from a “river keeper” organization in North Carolina in that post as well.

Remember, this blog is not in the business of advocating, so don’t get the wrong impression – I’m simply trying to consider these questions with an open mind.

Today's sources:

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