Let's Not Repeat the Corn Ethanol Debacle
Scientists from the Oregon State University have published in Nature Climate Change the largest and most comprehensive study to date on the environmental impacts of making biofuel from West Coast forests. What they found after crunching the data isn't very encouraging for those who would like to revive the forestry sector by turning trees into fuel...
“On the West Coast, we found that projected forest biomass removal and use for bioenergy in any form will release more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than current forest management practices,” said Tara Hudiburg, a doctoral candidate at OSU and lead author on the study.
“Most people assume that wood bioenergy will be carbon-neutral, because the forest re-grows and there’s also the chance of protecting forests from carbon emissions due to wildfire,” Hudiburg said. “However, our research showed that the emissions from these activities proved to be more than the savings.”
Compared to what we're doing now with forest management, all of the approaches to making biofuels from trees studied in increased CO2 emissions. Under the most optimal levels of efficiency, management just for fire prevention, it increased by 2%; for better economic return, 6%; and for higher energy production, 14%.
There are probably some good opportunity to use forest biomass for fuel - mostly for cogeneration in mills that would use part of the tree anyway and throw away the rest - but it seems like harvesting trees for the sole purpose of making biofuel is a bad idea, at least in the areas studied (the US West Coast). Besides, biofuels need to be burned in internal combustion engines, a technology that is inefficient from the start (you're lucky if you can get to 30% efficiency in real-world applications). Hopefully in the future more people will walk, bike, take mass transit, and the vehicles that are left will run on electricity (electric motors are more efficient, and they can be powered with electricity from a wide range of clean sources).