Reader response: Biomass continues to be an important energy source for the commonwealth

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By Kyle Shreve 

Biomass remains a renewable energy source that continues to be an integral part of Virginia’s energy solution. This biproduct of the forestry industry produced nearly 7 percent of Virginia’s energy in 2018 according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. However, a commentary recently published in the Virginia Mercury contains assertions regarding biomass that need to be corrected.

The author of the commentary claims that the use of biomass “destroys” forests. In fact, the exact opposite is true. Virginia has a strong, stable forest of 16 million acres. This number has remained largely unchanged for almost two decades. According to the Virginia Department of Forestry, for every ton of wood harvested in Virginia, 2.5 tons take its place. Further, over 80 percent of Virginia’s forested land is privately owned. The market for the use of biomass creates a strong financial incentive for these landowners to continue to plant and replenish forest land for later use.

All the while, the volume of wood stored in forests continue to increase each year. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, from 2007 to 2017, net volume of growing stock on Virginia timberlands rose 4.4 billion cubic feet or 20 percent. Proper forest management and commercial harvesting will continue to play a vital role for not only Virginia’s economy, but also for the conservation of Virginia’s natural resources. On a nationwide scale, privately owned forests are growing 40% more wood than they harvest, capturing more carbon than is released by all wood product uses, including biomass. Expanding forests help offset about 13 percent of the U.S. CO2 emissions annually.

The fact that Virginia landowners are replacing the source of energy faster than its use is the very definition of a renewable energy source. Studies from both the University of Illinois and the University of Georgia have found that, on a lifecycle basis, replacing coal with biomass can reduce carbon intensity of electricity generation by up to 85 percent. Burning biomass does release carbon.

However, unlike other fuels, the carbon emitted is removed from the atmosphere as trees grow and is reabsorbed by the growing forest landscape. Wood biomass is supported by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading scientific authority on climate change, as a necessary technology to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The Virginia Agribusiness Council represents the commonwealth’s agriculture and forestry industries. Combined, these two industries represent $91 billion to Virginia’s economy and employ 442,000 workers in the commonwealth. As the commonwealth’s third largest industry, the forestry industry has a vested interest in being proper stewards of sustainable practices for both the land and natural resources of Virginia.

Biomass is a biproduct of wood harvesting that is generated by sawmills, papermills and other forms of forest products. Without using biomass for electricity, the remaining biomass would be discarded and disposed in a less environmentally friendly way, such as filling a landfill. The facts remain that biomass needs to continue to be a part of Virginia’s renewable energy strategy. It continues to be a cost-effective and carbon-neutral source of sustainable, renewable energy.

Kyle Shreve is executive director of Virginia Agribusiness Council