Longtime biomass watchers will remember the Collins Amendment – which caused quite the stir last year, as it directed federal agencies to recognize biomass use as carbon neutral.  Passed May 5, the omnibus funding bill contains the Collins Amendment, a biomass provision that was originally contained in the 2016 Energy Policy Modernization Act and co-sponsored by Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Angus King (I-ME) and supported by Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Angus King (I-ME), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Al Franken (D-MN), Steve Daines (R-MT), Mike Crapo (R-ID), and James Risch (R-ID).

In a bid to increase the domestic use of wood for energy and heat, several members of Congress have long been supportive of the language. But without a federal vehicle for biomass policy, and declining biomass use in the United States due mostly to low natural gas prices but also several warm winters and low home heating oil prices, it’s unclear what immediate effect the omnibus legislation will have in propping up a flagging industry.


Woody Biomass – Everything but the Kitchen Sink

When policy makers discuss woody biomass, it is a catchall term for everything from forestry residues (tops, limbs, sawdust and chips), wildfire thinnings, industrial wastes (furniture, paper and pulp wastes), agricultural wastes, cordwood for home heating and wood pellets for home heating and small-scale heat and power applications.

In the United States, woody biomass is utilized on-site by industry (such as pulp and paper) and for small-scale heating and electricity operations in rural communities. Additionally, states such as California utilize agriculture waste in biomass power facilities.  The majority of pellets produced in the United States are exported to the E.U., where they are used to comply with European Union renewable energy directives.  There is also a small and growing demand for wood pellet stoves, particularly in areas with high home heating costs.  


Federal Policy on Biomass Use

The Clean Power Plan laid out the possibility of states utilizing biomass as a source of low carbon power generation. Trump’s March 28 Executive Order halts work on the Clean Power Plan. With the Clean Power Plan essentially no longer in play, woody biomass utilization policies fall back to the states – for now.

Section 428 of the omnibus appropriation bill, which funds the government through September 30, 2017, directs the EPA, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to harmonize their policies on woody biomass and to “recognize the full benefits of the use of forest biomass for energy, conservation, and responsible forest management.”

Additionally, it directs the three agencies to “establish clear and simple policies for the use of forest biomass as an energy solution, including policies that reflect the carbon-neutrality of forest bioenergy and recognize biomass as a renewable energy source, provided the use of forest biomass for energy production does not cause conversion of forests to non-forest use.”

EPA policies had previously been supportive of considering biomass feedstocks as carbon neutral, but under the 2010 Tailoring Rule, biogenic and fossil CO2 sources are treated the same.  The tailoring rule set off years of fighting between some major environmental groups and the biomass industry.


Study Finds Biomass Use Better Than Natural Gas

On May 10, the Biomass Power Association (BPA), which represents the domestic biomass power industry, released a study by Dr. Madhu Khanna of the University of Illinois Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics and Dr. Puneet Dwivedi of the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. 

The researchers compared the emissions of a biomass power facility using forest residues versus a natural gas facility.  They found the emissions at a biomass power facility using forest residues are 115 percent lower than those of a natural gas power plan in a one-year period.  This was due to the use of waste products (tops, limbs) that would otherwise be left in the forest to decay. Bob Cleaves, president of the Biomass Power Association commented, “In addition to the carbon benefits of biomass, the existence of a biomass facility in a forested area promotes jobs and healthy forests by creating a market for low value wood products.”  


Issues Continue to Beset Industry and U.S. Forest Service

The woody biomass issue has received attention as western forests are over-stocked and prone to wildfires.  In the past several years, the U.S. Forest Service has used a majority of its budget on wildfire fighting. 

There is growing consensus that federal forest restoration projects should utilize biomass for energy and heat, but it has proven too expensive and politically fraught to remove these materials for re-use. Instead, in the face of cheap natural gas prices and expiring power purchase agreements (PPAs) with power stations, the domestic use of biomass has been declining.


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