In a May 8 letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, Senators Markey and Warren, both Democrats from Massachusetts, question the value of bioenergy, energy sourced from cellulosic and woody material, primarily wood waste from the lumber, pulp and paper industries. The EPA’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) proposes to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from existing power plants by 30 percent by 2030, relative to 2005 levels. The plan allows great flexibility to individual states in complying with the rule, and one option available to the states is bioenergy. However, the Senators argue that “including bioenergy as a compliance measure in the Plan could … compromise the Plan’s ability to achieve emissions reductions by 2030.”
Biomass Power – Carbon Neutral or Worse than Coal?
As part of the CPP, the EPA’s scientific advisory board is assessing the carbon emissions from biomass power sources. In November, EPA released the “Framework for Assessing Biogenic CO2 Emissions from Stationary Sources,” which recognized the role that “waste-derived feedstocks” as well as “forest-derived industrial by-products” can play in the low-carbon economy, as they “are likely to have minimal or no net atmospheric contributions of biogenic CO2 emissions.” Unlike other renewable energy sources, these waste materials can pose significant environmental problems if not sustainably dealt with – but if utilized they can provide significant benefits on several levels.
EESI maintains, as do many forestry groups, scientists, and forestry product industries, that there is a fundamental difference between carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels and emissions from burning biomass that is sustainably harvested and regrown, and thus able to sequester carbon. Quantifying carbon emissions from woody fuels is important because individual states will need to assess whether their wood-based energy resources qualify under the Clean Power Plan. Several states have already created definitions for sustainable biomass energy. New research even suggests that biomass power plants coupled with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) or carbon capture and re-use (CCU) would be carbon negative – actually drawing carbon out of the atmosphere.
Unfortunately, the Massachusetts Senators draw their information on biomass power from a highly controversial study on biomass carbon, from the Manomet Center for Conservation. This study, commissioned by the state of Massachusetts in 2010, eventually led to the banning of biomass power as a low-carbon energy source, despite several rebuttals from respected forestry scientists on the study’s assumptions on forest carbon cycling. In their letter, they promote a “wait and see” approach, allowing states to “apply for modifications to their implementation plans” since the framework will not be completed at the time of the Plan’s finalization.
Will Biomass Power Cause Deforestation?
At the heart of the matter is – what constitutes sustainable biomass power? Are healthy, whole trees being used? Or just waste products from the timber industry? Some environmental groups argue that whole trees are being sent to mills to make pellet fuels that would otherwise be left alone in forests. The pellet industry argues that these trees, tops, limbs, chips and sawdust are waste products from the timber industry that would be otherwise burned or landfilled. Moreover, there is considerable waste from urban forests which could be used, resulting from storms, diseased trees and other disturbances.
Another frequent argument is that while the industry may be operated sustainably today, as demand for wood energy grows, it will seek higher value wood products, such as whole trees for biomass power. Therefore, policies that incentivize or simply sanction woody biomass will inevitably lead to forest destruction.
These fears have not been borne out. The biomass power sector exists at the margins of the timber industry – utilizing low value waste products, as well as picking up slack from the flagging pulp and paper industry. The economics don’t bear out – it just isn’t feasible to use lumber that goes to high value wood products for low-value wood energy.
Additionally, there is evidence that a well-managed wood energy industry will actually add trees to the landscape and help keep forests intact, as the U.S. Forest Service recently found. On the other hand, rampant development in many areas of the country, including the Southeast, means that mega-suburban corridors, like “Charlanta” may become a reality. Pressures from development, which result in significant land use change and release enormous amounts of carbon when developed – must be taken into consideration in preserving forests. In fact, to keep land in open space, both forests and farms, it’s important for private landowners to be able to obtain some kind of economic production from these “working lands”.
Can’t States Just Use Solar and Wind to Comply with the Plan?
In their letter, Senators Markey and Warren state that instead of biomass power, states should focus “near-term state efforts on wind, solar and other zero-carbon renewable energy technologies whose contribution to the Plan’s objectives are well understood.” Certainly, zero emissions technologies should be the majority of new generation capacity, but this statement ignores the heavy lift that some very coal-dependent states will have in getting to mid-term goals under the Plan.
One example is Missouri. The power mix in the state is currently 83 percent coal. Biomass can be co-fired with coal to lower the overall intensity of the power generation, helping the state to meet interim goals under the Plan, while also allowing them adequate time to build out zero-emission new generation. Additionally, biomass power could play an important role in a diversified renewable energy mixture – providing essential base load power to the grid to complement the intermittency of other renewable resources.
A potential moratorium on biomass power ignores the role that biomass thermal energy can play in demand-side efficiency. In Massachusetts, a third of all homes are still dependent on home heating oil, an expensive, and carbon intensive source of heat. The state is incentivizing the installation of biomass boilers for thermal heat and electricity in schools, businesses and homes because they are cheaper, cleaner and less carbon intensive. The electric and thermal side of biomass are intertwined – and so putting a moratorium on one will harm the other.
Bioenergy over the long term can help transition away from coal and other fossil generation sources. States will be utilizing EPA’s guidance as they write and obtain state and EPA approval for their plans over the next couple of years. This moratorium until 2020 would essentially kill this small but important energy sector.
For more information see:
Effect of policies on pellet production and forests in the U.S. South, U.S. Forest Service