Environmental Benefits of Woody Biomass Utilization

Wood Energy March 12, 2010 Print Friendly and PDF

By C.D. Foster, J. Gan, and C. Mayfield

Several environmental benefits are associated with the utilization of woody biomass for bioenergy and other bio-based products. In addition to being a sustainable renewable energy source, woody biomass can help to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, to create healthier forests, and to reduce the risk of wildfires.

While global climate change is no longer under debate, the underlying reasons behind climate change are still in question. Research conducted all over the world indicates that our climate is indeed changing. Although a number of factors contribute to this change, burning of fossil fuels is perceived to be a major contributor to increased atmospheric CO2. The global climate change initiative is a promising platform whereby renewable technologies can receive support. Bioenergy offers an alternative to fossil fuels. In addition to being quite plentiful, an increase in biomass utilization helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Burning biomass is a carbon neutral process.

Greenhouse gas emissions can be mitigated through the process of carbon sequestration, or removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into long-lived carbon pools. The process of photosynthesis combines atmospheric CO2 with water, releasing oxygen into the atmosphere and incorporating the carbon atoms into the plant cells. As a result, this carbon neutral process can help displace CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels. About 40 million dry tons of logging residues are available for bioenergy production in the United States annually. Utilizing these residues would displace about 19.4 million tons of carbon, or 3 percent of the total current carbon emissions from the electricity sector (Gan and Smith, 2006). The cost of using logging residues for carbon displacement is $60 to $70/ton (Gan and Smith, 2006), considerably less than other mitigation options of $83 to $164/ton (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2001).

Besides alleviating greenhouse gas emissions, the use of forest biomass for bio-based products can help improve forest health and reduce the risk of wildfires. Markets are key components of the biomass value chain. Viable markets aid in creating healthier forests by encouraging the removal of brush, small diameter and damaged trees, and other fuel sources. This action lessens the possibility of large, high intensity wildfires as well as decreasing mortality caused by insects and disease. Using woody biomass for fuel and other bio-products can bring about other environmental benefits, including the recovery of degraded land, reduction of soil erosion, and protection of watersheds.

References

  • Foster CD, Gan J, Mayfield C. 2007. Advantages of Woody Biomass Utilization. Pages 35-38. In: Hubbard, W.; L. Biles; C. Mayfield; S. Ashton (Eds.). 2007. Sustainable Forestry for Bioenergy and Bio-based Products: Trainers Curriculum Notebook. Athens, GA: Southern Forest Research Partnership, Inc. [pdf]
  • Gan J, Smith CT. 2006. Availability of logging residues and potential for electricity production and carbon displacement in the US. Biomass and Bioenergy 30(12):1011–1020.
  • Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2001. Climate Change 2001: Mitigation Summary for Policy Makers. http://www.ipc.ch Date accessed: October 24, 2005.

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There are many factors that help determine the use woody biomass for energy production.  Below we consider the decision-making points involved in the process.  

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USDA / NIFA

This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.