Biomass is Base Load

By Tim Portz | May 06, 2014

It is virtually impossible for me to walk by a large circulation, consumer magazine with an energy related cover story without buying it. Most recently I picked up and purchased the April 2014 issue of WIRED magazine. Its medium gray cover featured a single fist sized piece of coal sitting next to the headline “Coal: It’s Dangerous, It’s Dirty, and It’s the Future of Clean Energy”. The article, authored by Charles C. Mann is nearly 6000 words long, supported by handsome and compelling infographics and is as unsettling a story as I’ve read about energy and climate change in recent memory.

Shortly after reading the story on a flight, I lost the magazine. This turned out to be a fortuitous occurrence as had I not misplaced the hard copy I would not have pulled up the online version of the story and discovered the robust debate and discussion appended to the article in the comment section, nor the thoughtful back and forth between Mann and the Sierra Club’s Paul Rauber, senior editor of that organization’s Sierra publication at Rauber’s blog.

Mann can’t be shocked that the Sierra Club responded as he names them in the article as one of two environmental groups who have very publicly questioned the wisdom and motives of so called “clean coal”.

Mann’s assertion is simple. Coal is too ubiquitous and embedded in the creation of modern comforts for us to seriously consider walking away from. Mann makes this argument reluctantly after laying out in great detail the alarming enormity of coal’s consequences. Coal provides over 40% of global electricity, to say nothing of coal’s monopoly as an input in the creation of steel and concrete, both important raw materials in a growing society. Mann concludes his piece by checking in on the state of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) and his findings are equally unsettling. To summarize, CCS technologies are very much in their infancy, are prohibitively expensive and ironically, while require vast sums of energy to operate adding a significant parasitic burden on the output of the facilities they would eventually be affixed to.

As you might expect, in his article Mann eventually turns to renewables and their promise at scaling fast enough to thwart the climate disaster he suggests will likely result from burning the century worth of coal still in the ground. 

What I didn’t expect, but am growing less surprised by is that despite the several hundred words Mann dedicates to the subject of renewables, including quotes from former Secretary of Energy Dr. Steven Chu, he never mentions biomass. Even when, as most stories inevitably do, Mann’s piece points out that wind and solar do not currently generate the “always on” base-load power that stable grids require does he pivot and mention renewable energy’s only commercially proven base load solution.

This is a real opportunity for the broader biomass industry and a drum we simply have to beat louder and more feverishly. Biomass is the only base load quality energy input that relies on biogenic carbon instead of geologic carbon out there and it is being deployed around the world in many different forms, including the re-powering of coal assets with wood pellets. The two features in our June 2013 issue were dedicated to the re-powering of coal assets with woody biomass, both being driven by governmental mandates to drive carbon out of their energy infrastructure. If you haven’t read those two stories, I urge you to do so as companion pieces to the Mann story.

I also urge you to read the Mann story as well as the resultant back and forth between he and Paul Rauber. Finally, I invite you to join me in an effort to bring biomass into the lexicon of mainstream renewable energy discussions. Biomass is base load and while its ability to stave off the kind of calamity Mann’s piece suggests may arise from continued use of coal is a subject for another day, it deserves a mention in any discussion about the role of renewables in our global energy picture. 



5 Responses

  1. Robert Palgrave



    So it's unscientific to question the carbon credentials of big biomass? But... Some of the most distinguished scientists in the US have written to UK energy secretary Ed Davey, urging him to abandon the government’s “misguided” subsidies for companies burning wood pellets to generate electricity, such as the Drax plant in Yorkshire. The biologist, Dr E.O. Wilson and Professor Daniel Kammen, an energy adviser to the US State Department, are among 60 signatories to a letter seen by the Financial Times. It warns that UK energy policies are stimulating an “explosive growth” in wood pellet mills that will not reduce carbon emissions and which threatens important native forests. The letter is at: Can you name any scientists who would go on record and refute this perspective?

  2. Adrian Boodt



    In the UK we have also haad the same issues, the debate is always about wind and solar, and the Policy makers always eitehr ignore biomass or make it out to be some sort of stop gap measure. The Stern Report of 2010 made it clear that wind and solar were by7 far the most expensive method of generating power. The publicicty of unscientific publications like the RSPB report on biomoass are poorly informed and dont help the situation. It is clear from the scientific work done by the Iwokrama Foundation in Guayana that a well managed forest with lots of young vigorously growing trees are a highly efficient way to reduce carbon dioxide and not the ignorant rants such as the recent one we have seen about Drax tearing down a forest every week to feed their station. Anybody who is involved in this business knows that the sustainability criteria now applied by utilities like Drax have to consider the new EU Timber Regulations, which rather makes the statement about Drax and forests look completley misplaced

  3. Tim Portz



    Charles, It is easy to say kind things about that story. I thoroughly enjoyed reading, and re-reading it. I would invite you to read any of our coverage of the repowering of coal based assets with biomass in the United Kingdom as a great place to understand how biomass is increasingly being looked to as a coal ammendment or replacement. I think our coverage is as good as any you are likely to find. Biomass power, of course, can be found across the globe, but despite its base load quality is usually mentioned after wind and solar. Thanks for showing up and letting us you know you had a look around.

  4. Charles Mann



    Thanks for the kind words about my Wired piece. You're right: I should have discussed or at least mentioned biomass. My apologies!

  5. Tim Portz



    Robert, Thank you for your comment. I also appreciate your willingness to post your full name as comment boards present a unique challenge to organizations like ours. I printed and have read the letter you sent. I will read it again. As for your question about scientists that would refute the claims outlined in your letter I would offer these names. I just spoke with Bob Mamsheimer from SUNY this morning and he welcomed a review of his work. Additionally, William Strauss of FutureMetrics has recently published a report titled, "Wood Pellet Fuel - A Solution to Reliable Baseload Low Carbon Electric Power Generation". I'd invite you also to read the article I wrote for this outlet. If you search for "Burdett" in our search screen you will find it. Bob Malsheimer is quoted in that piece as well as Martin Junginger, assistant professor at the Copernicus Institute for Sustainability Development at the University of Utrecht. All of those folks I mentioned, and many more hold very different opinions than the signees of the letter you sent.


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