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Thomas

Is Biomass, and more especially wood fuel, really carbon neutral?

Wind Assessment Engineer at Eurocape New Energy

It is assumed that wood fuel release as much carbon dioxide as tree can absorb during his lifespan.

  • Comment (11)
  • October 30, 2012
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Comments

  • Akshay S.

    Akshay

    Akshay S.

    Executive-Business Development(South India) at CHEMTROLS SOLAR PRIVATE LIMITED

    Yes it is- provided we replant the wood used for fuel. It is actually a misconception that using wood as a fuel source is not carbon neutral.

  • Rhiddi

    Rhiddi S.

    Professor : NRPD / RETs Expert at RECAST / Hoste Hainse

    Rhiddi Singh. All the plant based biomass are renewable and carbon neutral in general. For developed countries it does not bring any problem to use as fuel resource. LDC like Nepal depends heavily on it as a major fuel resource, where it is neither sustainable harvested nor rationally monetized and used appropriately. Then it is labelled as the non renewable and non neutral to carbon. Country like Nepal generate about 90 % of the energy resources from the natural resources sharing 88 % biomass resource, which should be evaluated from different angle. Fuel resource, technology in application and the emissions should be evaluated rationally from the respective dimension in order to maintain the environmental impact assessment.

  • Rodrigo S.

    Rodrigo

    Rodrigo S.

    MSc Student at Faculty of Sciences, University of Lisbon

    I agree with the "plant the same amount you use", but you also have to consider the emissions due to transportation (the energy production isn't necessarily in situ), re-growing the harvests (fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides...), and other factors.

    Conclusion, in my opinion biomass is not carbon neutral but, if you take into account several factors and plan correctly, it can have low emissions (and still be considered a good option).

  • Hugo S.

    Hugo

    Hugo S.

    Principal Analyst at Oakland Innovation

    First it must be understood that the sole problem with carbon emissions comes from the use of fossil fuels. Only the direct or indirect use of fossil fuels can induce an increase of the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. All other carbon is in fact part of the natural carbon cycle and is continually absorbed by autotrophs (in which plants are included) and continually released again into the atmosphere either by burning or by its digestion by bacteria, fungi or heterotrophs (in which all animals are included). This cycle has been happening for millions of years and no problem comes from it as all life has adapted to live in those conditions. Burning biomass is no different than letting it simply rot naturally in terms of carbon emissions (it may actually be a bit better in terms of greenhouse gases).

    However, when fossil fuels are burned, the carbon content that was stored underground for millions of years, hence "outside" of the natural carbon cycle, is released into the atmosphere increasing the amount that must circulate in the cycle. All discussions about carbon emissions stem from this specific problem.

    Now, more to the point, when you use biomass, you are simply releasing the carbon that was absorbed by the plant. In fact, if you do not use all of the plant's mass, part of it may be retained underground (for instance roots), and in the end the burning of a plant may actually be carbon negative.

    However, what Rodrigo is referring to should also be discussed! Sometimes it may be important to do a life-cycle analysis and integrate externalities into such discussions. If you consider that the production of biomass implies the use of other activities and materials that make use of fossil fuels, then you could consider that their emissions should be embedded on the analysis of emissions from that biomass. It is not clear, however, if that is the right way of doing it. You could also consider that the biomass in itself is carbon neutral (or negative) and that the emissions' problem should be attributed to those other human activities using the problematic fossil fuels.

  • Rhiddi

    Rhiddi S.

    Professor : NRPD / RETs Expert at RECAST / Hoste Hainse

    Dr Hugo Santos

    Most of you views are acceptable.But has not been considered by the
    authorized institutions / organizations. For the country like Nepal it
    matter a lot. Nation's major energy base has been the biomass fuel
    resources. Still to day about 88 % of the total energy being supplied from
    the biomass resources. But the govt can not declare it as the 90 % of them
    end up using traditional appliances. And there float the concept of
    renewable vs non-renewable biomass. And only 0.7 % biogas energy alone
    displayed under the RE. It should have been renewable resources 88 % and RE
    0.7 %. But still the nation should be credited for consuming the major
    renewable there by minimizing the cause of GHG emission to the
    atmosphere.Sustainability and the energy efficiency chapters can be worked
    out simultaneously.


    Rhiddi Singh

  • Hugo S.

    Hugo

    Hugo S.

    Principal Analyst at Oakland Innovation

    Dear Rhiddi Singh,

    I understand your worry about the way a country like Nepal faces biomass use and its definition as a renewable resource. In fact I believe that there are further points of analysis in that case than the ones we were addressing here. While biomass may be carbon neutral and renewable in principle, the reality may be that specific conditions may not allow for the forests to renew at the speed they are being used.

    Natural renewable systems cannot be perceived as unlimited. In fact the amount we can sustainably use them is limited by their speed of renewal. I'm not fully aware of the situation in Nepal but I can assume that forest resources and biomass are a fairly limited resource and, from that point of view, it makes sense for the government to discourage further use of biomass. Some confusion and misinformation concerning certain terms probably have some impact on those discussions as well.

    So, while the use of biomass may be good from the point of view of carbon emissions, it can also lead to the collapse of ecosystems and civilizations (read the book "Collapse" by Jared Diamond for a very interesting discussion on civilizations that disappeared due to natural resources exhaustion). Biomass should be used indiscriminately just because it is "clean" from an environmental point of view. You are probably facing a problem of working for global sustainability or local sustainability. Most of the African continent is facing exactly the same problem. It is not an easy situation both politically and economically.

    In the end, as you say, Nepal should probably be working towards the use of biomass in a more efficient way. But more than just working for energy efficiency and sustainability simultaneously as you say, sustainability must be achieved through the implementation of more efficient use of the limited natural and energetic resources.

  • Roderick W.

    Roderick

    Roderick W.

    Design Engineer, Sales/Environmental Services at R. Whitfield Associates Trust/ISPDEE

    Economically Biomass to fuel and energy may be the best source of needed energy there will never be a perfect solution as to Carbon neutral, but through the use of reformers and recirculation can reduce the carbon or smoke stack emmissions. It is still a sustainable energy source however not as green as it can evolve to be.

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