I’m opposed to subsidies that encourage the cultivation of plants and trees for the sole purpose of converting them into heat or electricity. Often sold under the “renewable energy” brand, such programs can result in substantial harm by paying people to bulldoze rain forests to plant soy or palms for their oil content or by supporting the harvesting of trees in North Carolina in order to pelletize them for use in European power plants that still use coal for 70-95% of their output.
However, when there is waste wood that requires disposal, it is better to burn it efficiently in a power plant provided with pollution control devices than to burn it in an open field where much of the burning takes place at low, smoldering, heavily polluting temperatures. The disposal of the waste is the true goal, the production of electricity is a useful by-product.
I was stimulated to produce this short note based on reading an article titled Solar is in, biomass energy is out–and farmers are struggling to dispose of woody waste that described how utilities under a mandate to provide a certain portion of their power using “renewable” energy are shifting their purchases to solar electricity as a cheaper alternative than biomass electricity.
It’s not clear if that is because solar electricity is actually cheaper to produce or because the system owners can afford to sell it at a lower price because they receive federal assistance totaling 30% of their installed cost plus a variety of additional state and local incentives.
From an environmental perspective, there is one more alternative disposal method that might be best of all, even if it is not the lowest cost. Though landfills have a bad name, burying wood and plant matter in a sanitary landfill can be a pretty good way to sequester CO2 for a very long time.
Heck, if future generations wait long enough, the biomass landfills will turn into useful hydrocarbon fuels.