The President’s FY2017 budget request contains a lot of good news for biomass advocates.  At DOE, the Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO), would see a 24 percent increase in its overall budget, primarily to advance the development of ‘drop-in’ biofuels from sources such as algae, microbes and cellulose, as well as needed vehicle technology advancements to utilize these fuels.  Other DOE programs touch on biobased chemicals and even co-firing biomass with coal. Despite the good news, there’s a familiar budgetary black hole that remains – bio-heat and biopower.  

Solid biomass, such as wood waste and purpose grown crops, can provide baseload power to intermittent renewables.  Studies have shown that it is the cheapest method to lowering the carbon intensity of the existing electricty sector.  Additionally, heating and cooling account for nearly half of the energy consumed by buildings. Renewable heating systems, such as pellet boilers, can provide sustainable, highly efficient power to users. The Biomass Thermal Energy Council (BTEC) reports that biomass combined heating and power (CHP) systems can approach 80 percent efficiency levels. Yet, at the federal level, R&D on both biomass heat and power continues to languish.

While the President’s budget isn’t set to sail through Congress, it establishes high priorities for Federal agencies for the year to come.  The pace of investments in renewable technologies, particularly wind and solar, reflect a commitment to stable policies and R&D for these industries.  According to the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, $445 billion has been invested in renewable technologies in the United States since 2007.  Yet, the pace of funding in biomass, biogas and waste-to-energy has only grown 15 percent since 2008.

According to Bob Cleaves, President and CEO of the Biomass Power Association, wind and solar continue to be the darlings of the renewable world, while “baseload renewable energy, like biomass, does not have access to the same level of support [as other renewables] by policymakers.” At a recent EESI briefing on the President’s budget request, Scott Sklar, President of the Stella Group, commented that while the budget is good on biofuels, it could fix these so-called ‘black holes’ on bio-power and bio-thermal. 

The lack of federal investments in the sector come at a particularly painful time for the industry. Low natural gas and oil prices, combined with a warm winter, have made the once attractive energy and heating option less desirable. Adding insult to injury is the lack of stable policy for biomass heat and power.  Several biomass plants, from New York to California have shuttered recently, due to a combination of these factors.

In California, power purchase agreements (PPAs) have expired on many biomass facilities, forcing facilities to close.  The state once generated over 800 megawatts of power from biomass, primarily from forestry and agricultural residues, but generation has fallen to a low of 640 megawatts, with more than half of California biomass plants turning off generation.  In California, biomass can no longer compete with solar or natural gas prices, despite the huge need to deal with wildfire slash and agricultural wastes, particularly in light of the on-going drought.  Biomass industry advocates in California note that solar is heavily subsidized, whereas biomass has been left out of state policy for some time.

The biomass industry had high hopes that the Clean Power Plan would provide a driver for states to invest in biomass facilities or co-generation at coal plants, as the EPA had sanctioned “qualified biomass feedstocks” for low or zero-carbon electricity generation under the plan.  But with the CPP under a Supreme Court stay, it won’t provide the immediate incentive once hoped.

Renewable thermal has another hurdle to clear – it’s also not recognized in the tax code, despite the need to source heating and cooling from renewable sources. At the Biomass Research and Development Technical Advisory Committee meeting on March 9, BTEC again raised the issue of lack of federal recognition and funding for biomass-based combined heating/cooling/power applications.  The Biomass Research and Development (BRDI – Sect 9008 of the Farm Bill) is a research program jointly funded by DOE and USDA and sets R&D priorities for this important program.

BTEC representative Ben Bell-Walker noted the absence of a focus on biomass CHP from the program, stating in his remarks that “a stronger focus on the development of an infrastructure around proven technologies that utilize solid biofuels for thermal-led combined heat and power and for heating and cooling needs” could help address the need to decarbonize both power and thermal energy.  



For more information see:

Biomass goes from golden age to the brink of demise, E&E News

Solar is in, biomass energy is out—and farmers are struggling to dispose of woody waste, The LA Times

Biomass Power Association Statement on 2016 Sustainable Energy Factbook, Biomass Power Association