The sustainable truth about biomass

While forest sustainability for energy may be an issue in other parts of the world, it is absolutely a viable alternative to fossil fuels in NH


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National Public Radio recently broadcast a segment on its “Morning Edition” program that was critical of using biomass — wood and pulp chips and other scrap wood — to generate electricity. Biomass power plants have been described as “carbon-neutral” in an amendment to the energy bill now being debated in Congress, meaning the carbon emitted by these facilities is offset by regenerating forests. NPR quoted one academic who claimed biomass is not carbon-neutral, calling burning wood for energy “unsustainable.”

This statement is not seeing the forests for the trees.

Here in New Hampshire, we have a long history of sustainable forestry. Our forests continue to produce abundant hardwood and softwood lumber, wood chips and firewood, and they support a large and thriving forestry industry.

According to the most recent forest inventory statistics, the Granite State’s forests are getting older and increasing in volume. Indeed, the state is approximately 84 percent forested, including both public and private land ownership. We are, in fact, the second-most forested state in the nation, and as a state, we continue to grow more wood than we harvest. 

Moreover, even as we are using biomass to produce energy, research from the U.S. Forest Service shows the amount of carbon stored in the above-ground portion of trees has increased in New Hampshire by over 4 percent between 2006 and 2012. Clearly, the use of biomass in our state is more than just carbon-neutral; our forests are providing a positive benefit.

Biomass power plants are an important part of that sustainability. For one thing, they provide an important market for wood chips. In fact, with the recent closures of several paper mills in New England, biomass plants are often the only low-grade market available to many, if not most, of our professional foresters, loggers and landowners performing sustainable forestry. These are not lumber-quality trees that are being used to produce energy, but rather low-quality products, such as diseased or malformed trees, the upper branches and the wood scraps that result when sawmills produce lumber.

Strong markets help keep land in forests vs. converting the land to non-forest uses. Keeping forests as forests is one of the most important things we can do, not only for carbon storage, but for a host of other good reasons, too.

Moreover, biomass plants here help support more than 1,000 New Hampshire residents, and according to a recent study, they generate more than $170 million annually in economic activity for our state’s economy. Most of those dollars stay local, too. The state also has good forestry and best logging practices, which help sustain a healthy forest.

Biomass power generation is one of the best ways we can become energy-independent, using a renewable resource that’s right in our backyard. While forest sustainability for energy may be an issue in some parts of the world, it is absolutely a viable, renewable and sustainable alternative to fossil fuels here in the Granite State, and should continue to be an important component of our renewable energy plan. 

Brad Simpkins is director of the NH Division of Forest and Lands.

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