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Letter to the Washington Post Editorial Board from PFI and BTEC

May 5, 2016

Dear Washington Post Editorial Board:

We, the biomass heat energy sector, are disappointed with the substance and tone of your April 28 editorial entitled Dear Congress: Burning wood is not the future of energy. The piece ignores some basic scientific principles that underpin the carbon cycle and paints the entire forest biomass energy space as monolithic.  

Forest biomass is used to generate electricity, but an increasing portion of this resource is destined for highly efficient heating or combined heat and power systems for residential and commercial uses.   Many of these new biomass heating systems reach efficiency levels as high as 90 percent, meaning nearly all of the energy generated by combustion is being put to use.  Other pathways for forest biomass energy—namely electricity and liquid fuels—top out at about 25 and 45 percent efficiency levels, respectively.  

Clean-burning biomass thermal heating systems are being installed in regions of America where fuel oil is the primary heating fuel. What this means is that high carbon intensity oil heat—sourced largely from foreign countries—is being displaced by modern heating systems that depend on locally produced renewable biomass. The dollars stay in the community where these systems are deployed, unlike the fossil fuel boilers they are replacing.  To imply that this biomass energy trend does not represent a net positive for the environment shows a lack of understanding of technological developments in modern wood heating.  

Equally concerning is this piece’s endorsement of the carbon debt perspective espoused by some advocates. This flawed view accounts for carbon starting only at the point of combustion, but completely overlooks the fact that carbon from the atmosphere is constantly sequestered in growing forests. It ignores fully half the carbon cycle.  

Your editorial does not recognize that over half the forested land in this country is owned by individuals—typically small landowners with holdings fewer than 300 acres. These individuals depend on viable markets for their wood growth to keep their acres forested. Without markets and a return on their investment, these landowners are more likely to convert their lands to more profitable—and likely non-carbon sequestering—uses such as housing tracts. The U.S. has increased its forested acreage by 50 percent over the last 60 years, despite an unprecedented housing boom during that time frame.   Simply put, thriving markets keep working forests as forests.  

Consider also the tragedy that is playing out on our federal forests, where unmanaged forests are dying at alarming rates because overstocked stands are becoming infested with insects and disease or consumed by catastrophic wildfire. For the first time last year, the U.S. Forest Service spent over half its budget on wildfire suppression. Your piece contends that forests will simply keep growing, thriving and sequestering carbon if they are left alone and not managed for energy or other uses. The facts simply do not support this assertion. Unmanaged forests result in increased methane release—the most damaging greenhouse gas—due to decay of material on the forest floor or, alternatively, massive uncontrolled carbon and soot release due to wildfire.  

Your headline implies that all uses of wood for energy are bad for the environment. Our nation was built on the use of wood as a fuel, primarily for heating. Modern wood heating technology combusts cleanly and efficiently. We would welcome an opportunity to visit with you to provide more perspective on why we think heating with biomass presents a very bright future for energy in this country.  


The Biomass Thermal Energy Council and the Pellet Fuels Institute

Jeffrey Serfass, Executive Director
Biomass Thermal Energy Council
1211 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 650
Washington, DC 20036-2705
(202) 596-3974
[email protected]

Stephen Faehner, Chairman
Pellet Fuels Institute
2150 N. 107th St., Suite 205
Seattle, WA  98133
(443) 545-1920
[email protected]        

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