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The potential of biomass energy in the Northeast

In the Northeast of the US forest biomass has the potential to replace one quarter of liquid fossil fuels currently used in both industrial and commercial heating applications, according to a report released by the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies.

Forestry waste can provide an alternative to fossil-based energy sources, create local jobs and provide incentives to forest owners. Nevertheless, this feedstock is also used in other industries and must be carefully managed.

'In targeted applications, the heat generated by locally-grown biomass can reduce dependence on fossil fuels and support local economies,' says Charles Canham, a forest ecologist at the Cary Institute and co-author of the report. 'But each forested landscape is different and regional variation in forest conditions and energy infrastructure means there is no one-size-fits-all solution.'

After analysing USDA Forest Service forest data from Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont, the institute found that using forest biomass was more effective at replacing liquid fossil fuels that converting it to cellulosic ethanol to power vehicles.

Burning biomass in a combined heat and power (CHP) plant was found to reduce fossil fuels over five times more effectively than substituting petrol with cellulosic ethanol.

'Maine and New Hampshire show the greatest potential for forest biomass energy,' states Thomas Buchholz, a researcher at the University if Vermont's carbon dynamics lab and co-author of the report. 'Our study found that New Hampshire could replace as much as 84% of its liquid fossil fuel dependence in the industrial and commercial heating sector, and Maine could replace 49% of its liquid fossil fuel dependence in the home-heating sector.'

However Canham goes on to say: 'There is a misconception that Northeastern forestland is a vast, untapped resource. This is simply not true. Unrealistic growth in biomass energy facilities could lead to serious degradation of forest resources. While forest biomass is part of the renewable energy toolkit, it is by no means a panacea.'