Rep. Peter Welch, Biomass and Serendipity

an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident

Serendipity is a wonderful thing.

Earlier this week I received an email from Representative Peter Welch (D-VT) touting all the things he is promoting of late. You can view the full email here but I mainly want to focus on the bit about biomass, as that is where the serendipity came in.

Here’s to biomass!

Modern wood heating systems are a great way to reduce heating bills while improving the environment. That’s why Peter introduced The Biomass Thermal Utilization Act which would make it more affordable for Vermonters to install wood heating systems in homes and businesses.  Learn more here about the BTU Act and how biomass thermal heating systems can cut heating bills in half and lower carbon emission by as much as 95 percent.

If you follow the link in the quotation you will get some details of how exactly his bill will make it “more affordable” to use wood heating systems. (In my house we just call it a wood stove.) The method will likely come as no great surprise.

Congressman Welch’s legislation will put biomass thermal technology on an equal footing with other renewable energy sources in the tax code and within reach of more homes and businesses in Vermont and across the country.”

The BTU Act adds high-efficiency biomass thermal to the list of renewable energy technologies that currently benefit from investment tax credits. These investment credits currently applies to solar thermal and geothermal technologies, but not to biomass thermal.

While I agree that heating with wood may be less expensive than other methods, especially in Vermont where energy prices are often higher due to government policy, that is where my agreement ends. As with any government subsidy, those who cannot or choose not to change over to wood heating will be helping to pay for the systems of those who do via a higher tax bill. If by some stretch of the imagination everyone in the state chooses to change to wood heat, everyone’s taxes would go up by an amount that, on average, would be greater than the tax credit due to the cost of administering the system and waste (i.e. due to government inefficiencies your tax bill might go up $1100 for the $1000 subsidy (numbers are just for illustration)).

Further, if, as Rep. Welch and the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation claim, “switching from heating oil to a biomass heating system can reduce heating bills by an average of 40-50 percent” then why do people need subsidies to encourage them to do so? In offering the subsidies, the government is essentially offering to spread the costs across the entire tax-paying population while the benefits accrue just to the individual homeowner. I find it interesting that for all the left’s complaints that businesses attempt to “socialize the costs and privatize gains” in their operations (e.g. big banks looking for bailouts and then seeing record profits in following years) that is exactly what subsidies do, be it for heating systems, hybrid/electric vehicles or health care.  In a proper system, the individual would bear the costs and reap the benefits of their choices, whatever those choices are.

Some might claim that the gains are not restricted to the homeowner but also benefit society in the form of lower levels of pollution, which brings us to the serendipitous part of the story.

Now on to the serendipity.

The day after I received the email from Rep. Welch, an article, which you can find here, appeared in my timeline on Facebook reporting on a new study about biomass systems.

One of Welch’s claims about wood heating is that it is good for the environment in that it can reduce carbon emissions by up to 95%. I don’t subscribe to the idea of catastrophic climate change, but even if you do, advocating for wood heat isn’t going to do anything to solve it. According to a study by the Partnership for Policy Integrity:

this first-ever detailed analysis of the bioenergy industry reveals that the rebooted industry is still a major polluter. Comparison of permits from modern coal, biomass, and gas plants shows that at even the “cleanest” biomass plants can emit > 150% the nitrogen oxides, > 600% the volatile organic compounds, > 190% the particulate matter, and > 125% the carbon monoxide of a coal plant per megawatt-hour, although coal produces more sulfur dioxide (SO2). Emissions from a biomass plant exceed those from a natural gas plant by more than 800% for every major pollutant.

Biomass power plants are also a danger to the climate, emitting nearly 50 percent more CO2 per megawatt generated than the next biggest carbon polluter, coal. Emissions of CO2 from biomass burning can theoretically be offset over time, but such offsets typically take decades to fully compensate for the CO2 rapidly injected into the atmosphere during plant operation.


So it would appear that Representative Welch is willing to use government force to encourage people to act in a manner he approves of in an attempt to achieve an end that is unlikely to be realized. As I put it recently in this post:

It simply is not the proper role of the government to nudge, let alone compel by force, and taxes are force, individuals  to act in a way that the government approves of. Especially those who are not violating the rights of others. It does not matter for what reason it is being done nor what behavior we are being nudged towards or away from.

If people make the decision to use wood for heat, as I do, they should be left free to do so. It is not the place of government to offer us incentives, that others will have to pay for, to do as they would like us to, as if we are children being offered an ice cream if we clean our rooms. We are rational beings who can think and act on our own judgement and government should only act to restrain us if we violate the rights of others.