Biomass vs coal

Replacing coal fired power plants — like the now closed Navajo Generating plant — with biomass burning plants could not only save coal industry jobs, but generate 50 percent more jobs in forest industries, according to an international study.

NAVAJO & APACHE COUNTIES — Shifting from coal-fired power plants to biomass burning plants can not only slow climate warning, it can boost local jobs, according to an international study published in the scientific journal Joule.

A large-scale shift from burning coal to using biomass produced by logging and forest restoration projects would not only retain 40,000 jobs in the power industry, but create an additional 22,000 jobs in the forestry and transportation industry.

The study has special weight for Northern Arizona, where utilities are already shutting down coal-fired power plants because they cost more money to operate than solar, wind or natural gas plants. Burning biomass costs a little less than coal, but more than wind, solar or natural gas.

The shift has hit Navajo and Apache counties hard, where coal plants and their spinoffs account for 4-10 percent of the jobs.

Both Navajo and Apache counties have recently approved wind and solar energy power plants, but those renewable energy sources provide only a fraction of the jobs lost as coal mines and power plants shut down.

Even more urgent, the high cost of processing millions of tons of low-value biomass on every acre of forested land has stalled efforts to restore forest health and reduce wildfire risk through forest thinning projects. The 4-Forests Restoration Initiative has made little progress for the past decade for lack of a market for the biomass.

“This study shows how investing in climate change mitigation could actually ease the transition for coal workers, who would otherwise be confronted with abrupt job losses due to the retirement of the coal fleet by 2050,” said co-author Kasparas Spokas of Princeton University.

The Arizona Corporation Commission has balked at requiring utilities to buy power from biomass, which killed plans to convert a 60-megawatt unit at Cholla Power Plant from coal to biomass. The lack of a biomass mandate could also ultimately force the shutdown of the only biomass burning power plant in the region, a 28-megawatt (MW) plant operated by NovoPower near Snowflake, which is nearing the end of a long-term contract to sell energy to APS and the Salt River Project.

The international study of biomass power generation suggests a shift to biomass could not only restore forests and reduce wildfires, it could bolster the economies of rural areas by saving power plant jobs and creating forestry jobs.

“Our analysis shows that acting now and investing in this emission-mitigating strategy can be beneficial for employment in the U.S. coal sector,” said lead author Piera Patrizio according to a summary of the research published on the website Science Daily.

Modern biomass electrical generating plants can capture and store 99 percent of the carbon produced by burning biomass. If the biomass doesn’t go into the pollution-capturing power plant, it will eventually burn or decompose – releasing the carbon directly into the atmosphere.

Biomass burning power plants would keep the carbon out of the atmosphere for at least 1,000 years, the study authors concluded.

The benefits would likely be even greater in Arizona, where the biomass isn’t grown on tree farms but harvested in thinning projects. Those thinning projects would dramatically reduce the chance of a town-destroying crown fire. Thinning would also protect watersheds and reservoirs on which Phoenix depends. The study didn’t include those kinds of spinoff benefits since it focused on local jobs and the release of climate-altering pollutants.

“We took into account the fact that biomass must be grown and harvested in a sustainable way in order to be considered carbon-neutral and thus obtain negative emissions,” said co-author Sabine Fuss.

Burning coal releases carbon stored in the earth for millions of years. Burning biomass is considered carbon neutral, since the carbon stored in trees is constantly recycled anyway. Burning biomass in power plants with pollution controls actually can remove carbon longer term.

The researchers used several different economic forecasting models to estimate the number of jobs biomass burning would produce, both in the power sector and in forestry and transportation.

The massive Navajo Generating Station near Page and the coal mine that supplied it closed last year, cutting Navajo County’s property and sales tax revenue by several million. The closures also eliminated roughly 1,000 jobs. The Cholla coal-fired plant and the Coronado coal-fired plant are also slated to close in the next decade, at the cost of hundreds of additional jobs in Navajo and Apache counties.

On the other hand, the lack of a secure future for biomass burning plants has endangered the survival of the forest products industry in the area and threatens to upend the economics of future forest thinning efforts.

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at

(5) comments

Informed Consent

I appreciate you sharing the article date and title that you quote in your piece. Biomass burning releases more Co2 than dirty coal, across the board. The fires burning across Australia are not caused by the USFS mismanagement. They are a result of drought caused by climate changes that are aggravated by CO2 releases. "Green" energy is loosely defined in the media, The original definition referred to the burning of biomass that would regrow in a reasonable time frame in order to recapture the CO2 that would be released all at once by the biomass burning., Certainly, our SW forests are not capable of regrowing anytime soon. The CO2 releases and the black carbon soot that is also released by biomass burning to land on our alpine snow/ice fields, causing even less reflection of solar radiation, is a very unwise direction for us to move in. I too would like to stimulate our economy but in a wise way. How about doing a piece on our outdated log export laws? Changing those laws would wildly stimulate our local economies. Why isn't the USFS, NAU, or the BIA willing to talk about it? Something rotten here.

What is it? Leaving the chipped slash on the forest floor to slowly decay is better. Soil stores more carbon than all animal and plant life combined.


Informed post did not age well....Australian wildfires were caused by humans, not climate change.

Alarmists have been quick to blame climate change for the recent, horrific fires in Australia and California. Although human actions do bear a large share of the blame for the scale of this ongoing tragedy, the cause is primarily bad management policies, not dreaded climate change. Governmental decisions, made under pressure from environmental groups.

Decades of intentional policies led to the tragic Camp Fire in California and other catastrophes....NOT Climate Change. These policies include drastic reductions of timber harvests in national forests (California is more than 45% federal land)

Informed Consent

That is what I want most for all of us, to "age well". Smoke pollution shortens that lives of people with heart, lung, stroke, diabetes, cancer and autoimmune diseases. We can find other ways if we try. I certainly have suggested articles to that effect. For example, changing our outdated log export laws. In a lot of ways, we agree on the need for thinning. Thank you for the exchange of ideas.

Barry A

I think biomass energy is a good idea. The global worming problem is not going away. Nothing the United States does will make any difference. We have to focus most of our resources on mitigation. One of the largest effects of warming will be tree deaths and fires in our western forests. Northern California has an estimated 100 million dead trees from bark beetle infestation. Ponderosa pines are particularly impacted. The effect of droughts can re reduced by maintaining a healthy forest density. Our western forests have become way to dense in the last 100 years because of not allowing fires to clear the undergrowth. Because forests are so dense fires usually turn in to devastating and dangerous crown fires such as experienced in California the past few years. The smart strategy now is to thin our forests and use the results for wood products and biomass energy. I would rather have excess timber burned in a environmentally controlled manner than in a forest fire.

Informed Consent

I agree for the desperate need for thinning the small diameter trees. That is why I keep bringing up our outdated log export laws. We got into this mess by logging wholesale the larger diameter trees which opened up the forest canopy so that the seedlings, which normally would have remained stunted, could shoot up into a thicket. It was not the lack of fire that created this mess, it was the FS actions and the unrelenting drought. Thank you for your ideas.

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