Aletho News | December 26, 2009

The promotional material from Big Green Energy, aka Biomass Gas & Electric, presents biomass as “clean, renewable energy”, sustainable and green. The US Department of Energy uses the terms “clean and renewable” when introducing visitors at its website to the topic.

But is it accurate to describe the repeated removal of biomass from agricultural or forested lands as sustainable?

A quick review of some basics on the role of organic matter in soils belies the claim.

To support healthy plant life soil must contain organic matter, plants don’t thrive on minerals and photosynthesis alone. As organic matter breaks down in soil nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur are released. Organic matter is the main source of energy (food) for microorganisms. A higher level of microbial activity at a plants root zone increases the rate of nutrient transfer to the plant.  As the organic matter decreases in soil so does this biochemical activity. Without organic matter, soil biochemical activity would nearly stop.

In addition to being a storehouse of nutrients, decaying plant matter keeps soil loose, helping soil remain both porous and permeable as well as gaining better water holding capacity. This is not only beneficial to plant growth but is essential for soil stability. Soil becomes more susceptible to erosion of all types as organic matter content is reduced.

The value of returning organic matter to the soil has been well-known to farmers since the earliest days of agriculture. Crop residues and animal waste are tilled back into the soil to promote fertility.

Denny Haldeman of the Dogwood Alliance asserts that there is no documentation of the sustainability of repeated biomass removals on most soil types. Most documentation points to nutrient losses, soil depletion and decreased productivity in just one or two generations.

A cursory search of the Department of Energy website does not reveal that they have given the issue of soil fertility any consideration at all. However the biomass industry is supported by both Federal and State governments through five main advantages: tax credits, subsidies, research, Renewable Portfolio Standards, and preferential pricing afforded to technologies that are labeled “renewable” energy. Without government support biomass power plants wouldn’t be viable outside of a very limited number of co-generation facilities operating within lumber mills. But under the Sisyphean imperative of “energy independence”, and with generous access to public assistance, the extraction of biomass from our farmlands and public forests is set to have a big impact on land use (or abuse).

In sustainable farming manure is not “waste”

The creation of an artificial market for agricultural “wastes” harms entire local agricultural economies. In Minnesota, organic farmers are concerned that a proposed turkey waste incinerator will drive up the price of poultry manure by burning nearly half of the state’s supply. The establishment of biomass power generation will likely make it more difficult for family farms to compete with confined animal feeding operations and will contribute generally to the demise of traditional (sustainable) agricultural practices.

Similar economic damage will occur in the forest products industries… continue