Schools, hospitals, downtown districts, college campuses, food produces, and metal smelters all have one thing in common – they need access to large amounts of heat and power in order to function. Nearly all of these facilities operate large-scale boiler facilities, called Industrial/Commercial/Industrial Boilers (ICIs), in order to provide this energy at their location efficiently and at a significantly lower cost than electricity. To do so, ICIs burn a variety of fuels, including oil, coal, natural gas, and biomass. Each of these fuels produce varying levels of nitrogen-oxides, sulfur-oxides, carbon-dioxide, and particulate matter that negatively impact the environment and contribute to global climate change.
Many institutions are converting their boiler systems to run on biomass because of a perceived environmental benefit. Promoters of biomass claim the fuel comes from renewable resources (usually waste wood from mill and paper facilities) and that emissions are off-set by new growth. This idea, however, fails to consider the local impact of biomass emissions, or the additional strain that could be placed on biomass sources if the fuel becomes widely adopted.
Biomass ICIs produce higher levels of nitrogen-oxides (NOx), carbon-oxides (CO), particulate matter (PM), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) per unit of energy than oil or gas fired facilities. Carbon and particulate emissions are of particular concern, being respectively 20 and 14 times higher than oil-fired boilers. These high emissions have been linked to increased respiratory and cardiovascular health problems, and cause more environmental damage than systems powered by oil or natural gas.
Current biomass systems predominantly use wood chips or pellets made from waste wood.[i] Some of this material is new wood, such as branches or sawdust leftover from lumber milling, while other wood is recycled from building demolitions or old telephone poles.[ii] However, increased demand could exceed the supply of waste wood as more ICI boiler systems are converted to biomass. Additional land would be logged solely for fuel, causing a two-fold increase in carbon emissions by both burning wood and reducing the number of trees available to pull carbon from the atmosphere.
Biomass ICI boilers represent a false promise of environmental sustainability. Rather than a clean-burning, renewable alternative to fossil fuels, biomass produces excessive emissions and puts additional strain on existing forests. New alternatives to oil and natural gas need to be found and developed instead of implementing this retrograde technology. Check out the resources below and others available on this webpage for more information on ICIs and biomass facilities.
[i] Wood chips are shredded branches or trees, similar to what is found around playgrounds or flower beads. Wood pellets are small, compressed balls of sawdust and other materials. Pellet biomass systems tend to be more efficient at converting mass to heat, but require additional processing that increases their embodied energy.
[ii] Most of this used material would end up in landfills if not burned as biomass because chemical treatments and foreign objects imbedded in the wood make it unusable. Processing these materials into pellets removes foreign objects and renders the material safe to burn.