Burning Biomass for Electricity: Good Idea or Not?


By John McFerrin

Burning biomass for electricity is coming to West Virginia, or at least a major proposal to burn biomass to make electricity. We don’t know where, and we don’t know when, but the signs are there. If we are easing toward burning biomass for electricity, we should take a close look at that practice.

The big sign was Senate Bill 688, considered (but not passed) by the 2024 West Virginia Legislature. Senate Bill 688 would have authorized the West Virginia Division of Forestry to sell the right to come onto publicly owned forest land (state-owned or leased forests, natural and scenic areas, wildlife management areas) and conduct activities for “purposes of protecting, preserving and maintaining such lands from forest fire.” The idea, as described in the debate, was to cut out underbrush that would serve as fuel for forest fires. By doing so, according to this argument, major forest fires would be reduced. Although the bill did not specifically mention parks, the discussion on the bill in the State Senate assumed that parks were included.

SB 688 was a scam on its face. Nobody is going to pay for the privilege of coming onto public lands and cutting underbrush. As part of the debate, one Senator explained that the bill would result in removing invasive species overwhelming areas of the forests — chiefly autumn olive and kudzu.

Nobody is going to pay the state of West Virginia for the privilege of cutting autumn olive and kudzu. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of landowners who would welcome cutting kudzu on their land. They would not charge.

The true purpose of the bill—not the stated purpose of wildfire control—appears elsewhere. The bill allows the Division of Forestry to sell what is cut. Since kudzu trimmings have no market value, what they are selling is trees. SB 688 was a backdoor to cutting more trees on public lands. It may not (or it may) be opening the way to cutting big trees, the ones for building houses or furniture. But SB 688 provided an avenue to cutting trees.

The scamiosity of SB 688 was more apparent in its tool to avoid public scrutiny. It provided for letting the contracts for the right to cut brush (or kudzu) on public lands through the regular contracting procedure, including public notice and competitive bidding. Then it created a loophole that bypasses that procedure altogether. It allowed the Division of Forestry to bypass the regular procedure if the tree cutting was “a necessary component of an economic development project.”  Since every scheme to cut trees would be part of an economic development project (why else would someone pay to do it?), all contracts would have been let privately.

At the West Virginia Legislature, bad ideas never die. They just come back in a different form. Maybe the next time, it will come back without the tool to avoid public scrutiny; maybe it will be presented as cutting trees, not trimming kudzu and autumn olive. Maybe it will present in a more straightforward way the question of whether it is a good idea to cut brush and small trees (or big trees) on public lands in order to burn it to make electricity. If that is the case, we should look at the use of biomass to make electricity.

In general terms, biomass is organic material, meaning it is made of material that comes from living organisms, such as plants and animals. 

In the context of electricity production, the most common biomass materials used are plants, wood, and waste. These are called biomass feedstocks. There are operations that cut down entire forests and process them into pellets to be burned to make electricity. Although the opaque nature of SB 688 makes it impossible to tell for sure, the emphasis in the discussion on cutting underbrush on state lands makes it appear that what is contemplated is cutting small trees and underbrush to burn to make electricity.

So, is that a good idea? Is it a good idea to cut underbrush and small trees (or big trees, the proposal is not clear) from our public lands and burn it to make electricity? Would that practice contribute to global warming?  f the alternative is burning coal, is burning wood preferable?

As with anything having to do with global warming, the answer is complicated. In the short term, burning coal is preferable. Wood is less energy-dense than coal. Because of this, more carbon dioxide is released per kilowatt hour of electricity produced from burning wood than from burning coal. We would emit more carbon dioxide in producing a unit of electricity by burning wood than we would emit by producing that same unit of electricity by burning coal.

In spite of this, burning wood for electricity is often described as a carbon-neutral process. The idea is that the carbon that is in wood was sequestered there during the life of the tree, usually a century or less. As the forest regrows, an equivalent amount of carbon will be sequestered over the next century or so.

The flaw in describing burning wood for electricity as carbon neutral is the timing. Rome was not built in a day; neither is a forest. It is estimated that the carbon that is released by burning wood for electricity will not be reabsorbed by a growing forest for a century. During that time, the carbon dioxide will remain in the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.  

While burning coal rather than wood for electricity may be better in the short run, in the long run (over the next few centuries and millennia) it would be better to burn wood. It has to do with what scientists call the carbon cycle. Trees absorb carbon dioxide over years or centuries; it is released by burning the wood; it is reabsorbed by trees over years or centuries.

Coal is on a much larger cycle. The carbon it contains was sequestered underground millions of years ago. It will go back to being sequestered over a similar time scale. We have a buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere because we are releasing carbon (from fossil fuels) more rapidly than it could be reabsorbed during anything like a human scale. As a result, it builds up in the atmosphere.  

In deciding whether to allow wood from our public lands to be burned for electricity, the choice is not clear cut. Both burning wood and coal have carbon emission costs.  

There is, however, a third choice: leave the wood that we might allow to be cut in place and allow it to continue absorbing carbon dioxide. There are many complicating factors in calculating how much carbon dioxide a forest absorbs. Young trees may absorb different amounts of carbon than older trees, etc. It is beyond dispute, however, that any trees or underbrush are sequestering carbon. That’s what plants do, absorb carbon dioxide and sequester carbon. Rather than burning them for electricity we could just leave them alone, doing the beneficial work of sequestering carbon that they are already doing.

If, of course, a law passes that is similar to SB 688, those proposing cutting trees to burn for electricity will not have to justify their proposal. Their proposal would not be subject to public scrutiny. They would only have to convince the Secretary of the Department of Commerce that cutting trees is necessary to economic development, not an onerous task. The Secretary of the Department of Commerce is not in the forest protection or carbon sequestration business. It never met an economic development project it didn’t like.

If, however, a proposal is ever presented to the public, it would be described as a win-win proposition. Cutting brush and small trees would provide fuel for electricity while making the forest less prone to wildfires.  

The assumption behind this argument is unfounded. There is considerable research on the question of whether thinning of forests reduces the risk of wildfires. The research that supports thinning of forests addresses what it calls “seasonally dry forests.” These forests are in the western United States and in the southern United States. They are not in West Virginia. Our forests do not typically have the dry conditions where thinning is useful in controlling fires.

When SB 688 did not pass in the 2024 Legislature, we dodged a bullet. There is no indication that it would have made fires in our forests any less likely or any less severe.  It was based on the dubious assumption that burning trees from our public lands to make electricity is an ecologically sound plan. Just like other bad ideas, it will be back next year. We need to be ready.