Every week, the global population increases by more than the number of people living in Maine. The food, shelter and other resources needed by this rapidly increasing population can come from either renewable (e.g. solar, wind, forests) or nonrenewable (e.g. oil, coal, metals) sources. But if a sustainable quality of life is to be achieved for future generations, these increasing resource demands must be met by renewable — rather than nonrenewable — resources.
Given the impetus for greater reliance on renewable resources, Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King recently co-sponsored a legislative amendment (S.A. 3140) to the Energy Policy Modernization Act (S. 2012). The amendment seeks to standardize the definition of energy derived from renewable resources, particularly forest-derived woody biomass.
Critics of this amendment have focused on the use of the term “carbon-neutral.” However, this criticism distracts from the carbon-related benefits and many others of using wood as a renewable source of energy. Substantial scientific research over the past 40 years has examined the carbon impacts of using forest biomass for energy and other uses. A recently published summary of these decades of research had four general conclusions about forest bioenergy and carbon impacts:
— As long as the land where woody biomass is harvested remains as forest, the long-lived wood products and the associated forest bioenergy produced will reduce overall fossil fuel use and long-term carbon emissions to the atmosphere.
— Increasing demand for wood of all types stimulates global investment in forestland, leading to increased forest area and productivity, thus reducing overall carbon emissions.
— Although using forest biomass for bioenergy can sometimes produce small and short-term increases in carbon emissions relative to other sources, cumulative carbon emissions from using forest bioenergy are typically lower when calculated over the long-term, which has been shown to be the best predictor of future peak global temperatures.
— When assessed using the proper framework, the type of woody biomass used for bioenergy in the U.S. typically has low (and sometimes zero) impact on carbon emissions.
Based on this research, more than 100 forest scientists from across the country recently signed a letter to the U.S. EPA strongly supporting the use of woody biomass as a significant part of a renewable energy future.
Because using forest biomass encourages the use and expansion of working forests, a wide variety of other social and environmental benefits are provided to the people of Maine. Working forests provide much-needed jobs for rural communities. They also provide clean water and air, biodiversity, wildlife habitat, carbon storage and cultural values, and are wonderful places for recreation and tourism.
Maine’s forest products sector has relied on wood energy to run its mills, as well as to provide electricity for Maine citizens. In fact, Maine is a national leader in the production of electricity from non-hydro, renewable sources, providing up to 25 percent of the state’s total electrical generation. This use of forest biomass can also help reduce dependence on fossil fuel. Using locally grown wood from Maine’s more than 9 million acres of sustainably certified working forests also reduces the amount of wood coming from other countries, where laws governing forestry practices are often far less stringent and can promote deforestation.
Use of forest biomass to produce bioenergy is not only carbon-friendly over the long-term, but also provides a wide range of other social and environmental benefits for Maine’s people and the nation. What is clear is that forest biomass has a significant “carbon advantage” over fossil energy sources as we move toward renewable sources of energy and materials.
Stephen Shaler is director of the School of Forest Resources at the University of Maine and a professor. Robert Wagner is Henry W. Saunders Distinguished Professor in Forestry. Professors Ivan Fernandez and Aaron Weiskittel of the School of Forest Resources contributed to this OpEd.