The Importance of Being Earnest About Biomass

Finnish Bioenergy Power Plant
Finnish Bioenergy Power Plant

Metso Corporation is pretty confident in its green cred. The Finnish company calls itself “a global supplier of sustainable technology and services” and in a press visit today the company’s VP of strategic development, Michael Hoven, and communications manager, Sanna Rahikainen, when asked if they considered Metso a green company, said it was. They said they don’t greenwash and are proud of what they were doing for the environment.

Unfortunately  the devil is in the details, and Metso has a way to go before this blogger would feel comfortable calling it a truly sustainable business.

The key to Metso’s self-proclaimed environmental credentials is its production of biomass boilers to replace those powered by coal and other fossil fuels. It’s true that biomass has the potential to be an energy source that is superior to fossil fuels from an environmental standpoint. There are at least three keys in my mind to ensuring that biomass is a real sustainable solution:

  • The fuels sources have to be renewable.
    Biomass producers have to use renewable resources, such as plantation forests, as the fuel stock for the boilers. To really get why, we have to take a trip into carbon sequestration land. Biomass and fossil fuels both have global warming potential because when they are burned, carbon is released into the atmosphere. Too much of that and you get global warming. The key to making biomass neutral on the carbon issue is to deplete fuels stocks (trees, switch grass, corn, whatever) at the same rate as you plant more. That way, as you burn and release CO2, a theoretically equal amount will be sequestered in the new crops you are growing.

Metso is doing a decent job here- it does burn trees, which can be replanted. The problem is the other things it is burning, as well as the attention (or lack-therof) it pays to ensure that the stocks they deplete are renewed on an environmentally-responsible basis. Which leads me to my second point:

  • The fuel sources have to be renewed.
    The challenge is that if you don’t actually do the replanting, or you use a fuel stock such as old growth forests that aren’t easily replicated, or you burn old scraps like packaging, recycled wood, and “de-inking sludge” (a by-product of paper production) all of which are current practices of Metso, your burning process actually just releases CO2 that wouldn’t otherwise be released, that isn’t being re-sequestered. Guess what that means? You are a regular old CO2 emitter, just like the gas company. I asked Metso about its plans to replenish the stocks it uses, but it doesn’t see this as its responsibility.
  • Fuel stocks should be local
    Lastly, the fuel stocks need to come from the local area surrounding the plant, otherwise you are emitting CO2 just to bring the stocks to the power plant for burning. Until we get some electric 18-wheelers on the market, the CO2 that gets emitted to bring the stocks to the plant is not going to be recovered from the atmosphere. Metso doesn’t seem to have a strategy to encourage sourcing from local stocks.

The most frustrating thing of all was not only that Metso didn’t seem to understand the limitations of biomass as a renewable resource. The presentation we saw included several happy green planets and lightbulbs with trees growing out of them. We also heard many references to the carbon-neutrality of Metso’s biomass, despite the fact that Metso’s process is anything but carbon neutral. When pressed, Mr. Hoven said that his numbers only deal with his boilers–not what happens to the stocks before they get to him. He considers the biomass to be carbon neutral, despite the fact that his company doesn’t seem to be thinking hard about stock replenishment.

At Triple Pundit, we like to give companies the benefit of the doubt, and I have to say I felt a bit conflicted about writing this post so harshly because the folks we spoke to did truly seem proud of their company and it’s environmental potential. So let’s keep the benefit of the doubt open, but with a strong caveat – I think Metso needs to take a deeper look and start thinking more earnestly about its product and production before turning up the volume on claims of greenness, lest it be accused of greenwashing.

Jen Boynton

Jen Boynton is editor in chief of TriplePundit and editorial director at 3BL Media. With over 6 million annual readers, TriplePundit is the leading publication on sustainable business and the Triple Bottom Line. Prior to TriplePundit, Jen received an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School. In her work with TriplePundit she's helped clients from SAP to PwC to Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA -- court appointed special advocate for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.

8 responses

  1. Your right to question the fuel source, but I think biomass energy has a lot of potential. Burning biomass does release CO2, the question is, does it release as much net CO2 as coal fired power plants, or gas for that matter. Almost more worrying is the other air pollutants released in incineration, and the human health and environmental justice impacts of those emissions. Even if they do burn wood waste, packaging, and de-inking sludge that would have been 'sequestered' in a landfill, that decomposing organic matter would have released landfill gas methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas. It's also a way to get energy from agriculture waste while we all hold our breath for cellulostic ethanol. Of course there's no silver bullet, but biomass electricity seems like a step toward living within our solar budget and breaking away from fossil fuels.

  2. Give me a break. Here we have an engineering company, Metso, that builds fluid bed boilers for use by many entities, including muncipalities, power plants, paper companies or any one else trying to burn biomass, and you are expecting them to take responsibility for how their equipment is used, by others?

    That's the same as expecting the automobile companies to take responsibility for how their vehicles are operated, or how and from where the fuel ('source') these automobiles, trucks and SUVs is derived. I can see the notices pasted on the windows of the new vehicles. “This fine automobile will only operate on E85 fuel processed from organic sources grown within 50 miles of your home, or else”.

    Metso does not operate the boilers they sell to others, so how could they be held responsible?

    How about the paper mill in Germany that is burning the municpal trash, in a Metso provided boiler? Should they be getting accolades for the service they are providing, e.g.,convertting organic material, which citizens like you and I have discarded in our trash, to useful energy? Or should they be accountable and held responsible for the behavior of their 'source' of fuel?

    Your logic is illogical.

    1. Thanks for your feedback Roger. I would agree with you completely, except for the fact that the bulk of the presentation we watched was all about how green the technology is and how environmental the company is by proxy. I still think it's not ok to make such a claim unless you're going to ensure that the stuff is actually being used in a responsible way.

  3. Roger – thanks for the good point. You're certainly correct that a company isn't directly responsible for the end use of its products, but I think the point Jen was trying to make was that they weren't really thinking about it at all. Obviously a company can only do so much about how their products are used, but if they're making grandstanding green claims you'd expect the issue to at least be given lip service. I wasn't there, so I can't tell you what the sentiment was. Perhaps Jen can clarify more…

  4. Nick – Perhaps you are right. Perhaps the folks from Metso did not explain the technology sufficiently. That fluidized bed combustion reduces pollutants compared to traditional combustion technology and that FBC can burn materials, such as municipal trash, that non-FBC can not.

    Given that difference is a 'green' story warranted?

    Ford Motor proclaims green, even though they have other technology far from green, nor do they require their customers, as Jen suggests, to certify their fuel source is 'green'.

  5. Thanks for your feedback Roger. I would agree with you completely, except for the fact that the bulk of the presentation we watched was all about how green the technology is and how environmental the company is by proxy. I still think it's not ok to make such a claim unless you're going to ensure that the stuff is actually being used in a responsible way.

Leave a Reply