The Definition of Biomass
8:50 am
Tue July 29, 2014

A Question of Language for Dominion Power

Pittsylvania Power Station
Pittsylvania Power Station
Credit Dominion

Environmentalists are calling on the federal government to investigate the language used by Virginia’s largest utility - Dominion Power. 

The company invites customers to support green power by paying an extra fee, but critics say one source of energy included in that program causes more air pollution than coal.  

Dominion’s Pittsylvania Power Station is the largest biomass plant in the East - burning 150 truckloads of wood each day.  The company has a smaller plant in Wise County and has switched three others from burning coal to biomass. Dan Genest speaks for Dominion. 

“When somebody goes into the forest for a timbering operation, they take the trunks and they leave the branches and they leave the tree tops, and traditionally that stuff is either piled up and burns or it just lays there and rots.  We have people who go in there and they take that and grind it up, and that’s what we use for fuel.”

Wood is renewable, since new trees can be planted, and Genest claims burning it is “carbon neutral,” since those new trees absorb carbon from the atmosphere.  But the Partnership for Policy Integrity, a non-profit in Massachusetts, claims burning biomass emits more carbon dioxide than new coal plants.

“You have to burn a lot more wood to generate the same amount of energy The science is very, very clear cut with the wood burning plants.  They are just tremendously large sources of greenhouse gas emissions.”

That’s Mary Booth, a PhD ecologist who has spent the last six years studying biomass. It’s true, she says, that newly planted trees will absorb some of the carbon released when wood is burned, but it won’t happen quickly.

“Re-sequestering or offsetting that carbon takes decades, and we don’t have decades in the fight against climate change.”

So her group was outraged to see Dominion’s marketing materials that clearly brand biomass as green.