How much of your “clean, renewable” energy comes out of a smokestack?

"Renewable" energy has a nice ring to it. We think of solar panels, small-scale hydropower, and wind turbines: low carbon and sustainable solutions to the United States' energy problems. 
 
We don't think of energy that comes from a smokestack being particularly ”green”, but biomass energy derived by burning wood and wood derived products, as well as municipal waste, is considered renewable – and you the ratepayer pay more for it, on your electricity bill.
 
Figure 1 displays the percentage of total power generated by the main “renewable” technologies. Of these, biomass power is the only one that emits air pollutants like sulfur oxides (SOx), which cause acid rain and regional haze, and nitrogen oxides (NOx) which contributes formation of ground-level ozone, a major cause of asthma.
 
 
 
 

 

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) defines "renewable" energy as "Energy resources that are naturally replenishing… and virtually inexhaustible in duration but limited in the amount of energy that is available per unit of time.” EIA considers biomass, hydro, geothermal, solar, wind, ocean thermal, wave action, and tidal action to be renewable.

 

There’s no provision there to guarantee that renewable energy is “clean” energy, but isn’t that what consumers expect? And deserve? (seeing as how they’re paying extra for it – because biomass power receives the same ratepayer-funded “renewable energy credits” as solar and wind power, along with tax incentives – and loan guarantees! – from the federal government)

 
In fact, compared to the amount of power it provides, biomass combustion emits a disproportionate amount of pollution. Let’s put biomass power where it belongs, alongside the other polluting power plants, and look at the numbers.
 
Burning wood, wastes, and the organic portion of garbage produced about 1.4% of the country's total energy production, and about 2% of the energy from pollution-emitting, combustion-based power plants in 2009:
 
 
 
 
 
 However, it produced an alarming amount of pollution for this tiny 2 percent:
 
4 percent of sulfur dioxide from power generation:  
 
 

 

 

And 7 percent of nitrogen oxide emissions.
 
 
The biomass industry would have you believe that not only does this filthy technology deserve to be subsidized alongside truly clean renewable energy technologies like wind and solar, but that it’s an important part of the country’s energy production. We think it’s mostly important because it’s so disproportionately dirty, producing more than its share of pollution for the amount of power produced (and we’ve not even mentioned carbon emissions and asthma-causing particulate matter, which are both emitted at higher rates from biomass plants than coal plants).
 
The more biomass plants that are built, the greater the share of pollution this industry will produce. Why are consumers made to pay extra for renewable power that worsens air pollution?

 

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