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Agriculture Carbon-neutral argument for biomass (

Published on April 14th, 2014 | by Sandy Dechert

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Biomass Emissions Question Arises Again

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April 14th, 2014 by
 

Urban biomassIt’s called “urban biomass,” and it’s ours (spsmw.org).

Hard to imagine a subject that would find The Wall Street Journal and Grist in line with each other’s thinking, but burning wood for energy has achieved it. Neither outlet seems to view the topic positively. Both have cited the scientific work of Dr. Mary S. Booth, a former Environmental Working Group scientist who now works for the Partnership for Policy Integrity.

The basic arguments about using biomass as a source of energy have been around for some years, since bioenergy began to gain a following as an alternative to traditional fossil fuels and nuclear plants. Flags went up in 2010, for example, when a six-month study by Massachusetts environmental officials found that biomass-fired electricity might cause a 3% greater increase in carbon emissions than equivalent power from coal by 2050. (The issue does not apply to methane or algae energy generation, also biomass-based.)

The controversy surprised the MA Commonwealth officials, who had thought biomass a partial answer to emissions goals. AP picked up the story, which spawned active discussion on the concepts of “carbon debt,” “carbon dividends,” and “carbon-neutral.”

Carbon-neutral argument for biomass (usabiomass.org)“Biomass: Good for the Environment,” from the Biomass Power Association (usabiomass.org).

Almost two years ago, Justin Scheck and Ianthe Jeanne Dugan, who report on energy for The Wall Street Journal, argued against biomass because of providers’ lax compliance with emissions standards, the subsidies biomass plants receive, and the premiums they charge customers for electricity. Scheck and Dugan cited the case of Blue Lake Power in California, “among biomass plants nationwide that together have received at least $700 million in federal and state green-energy subsidies since 2009” (a drop in the bucket compared to annual fossil subsidies of $14 to $52 billion).

The authors quoted Dr. Booth as advising that government agencies should withhold grants from plants that violate the standards: “Why are we subsidizing and incentivizing something that’s dirtier than coal power in certain ways?”

Dirtier than coal?Debate continued, especially overseas, where the UK government had begun heavily supporting biomass power and major coal power stations had announced plans to switch to biomass fuels. These actions prompted Britain’s largest nature conservation organization (the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) and environmental groups Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace to issue a report in 2012 (“Dirtier than Coal?“) stating that that burning whole trees (especially conifers) to generate electricity is worse for the climate than coal burning and results in 49% more emissions.

The subject came up again this month, when environment writers/groups including John Upton of Grist, actforclimatejustice.org, the Global Justice Ecology Project, and so on related the publication of Dr. Booth’s recent PPI study, “Trees, Trash, and Toxics: How Biomass Energy Has Become the New Coal.” Bloomberg News also picked up the story.

In her new report, Booth again casts burning wood in power plants as more damaging to air quality and the atmosphere than burning coal.

"Trees, Trash and Toxics" (PFPI)

“What emerges from our analysis is a picture of an industry that despite loudly and continually proclaiming itself clean and green, is in many respects still one of the dirtiest corners of the energy industry, an industry where avoidance of pollution restrictions is tolerated, and even encouraged, by state and federal regulators.”

She makes a case we’ve heard before. This time, however, the research details a close scrutiny of 88 air emissions permits from woodburning power plants. (Reportedly, more than 9,600 facilities are currently operating in the US.) Her report has caused some concern. Booth’s calculations back up the earlier indications that for every megawatt-hour of electricity produced, even the cleanest American biomass plants pump out about 50% more carbon dioxide than plants that burn coal. She also found that the biomass plants she studied produce more than twice as much nitrogen oxide, soot, carbon monoxide, and volatile organic matter as coal plants.

The Biomass Power Association of the US naturally disputes Booth’s report, saying “Biomass is a clean, renewable energy source that our nation relies upon to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.” The industry regards “Trees, Trash, and Toxics” as “an 81-page editorial.”

It showcases a fundamental misunderstanding of the science surrounding forestry and biomass, and a lack of familiarity with the state and federal laws governing energy and the environment. Governing bodies from the State of California to the nation of Denmark rightly look to biomass as a sound, proven solution for generating clean energy while keeping forests healthy, and an essential part of any renewable energy policy. This report [by Dr. Booth] was not peer-reviewed, nor was it joined or supported by any credible national environmental organization.

Carrie Annand, Biomass Power Association external affairs vice president, cites the Plainfield, Connecticut, Renewable Energy Project and the Cabin Creek Biomass Facility in Placer County, California, as examples of biomass facilities gone right.

For regulated pollutants—the same pollutants discussed in the PFPI report—the construction of the Cabin Creek biomass plant, which used the wood waste that traditionally had been open burned, resulted in staggering reductions in emissions—95% to 99%. Similar reductions were confirmed by Placer County in a 2011 published, peer-reviewed report in the Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association—particulate emissions by 98%, NOX emissions by 54%, CO emissions by 97%, and CO2 emission by 17%.

BPA goes on to state: “the report asserts that biomass plants can emit more ‘pollution’ than fossil-fuel fired plants. That is simply incorrect. Facilities that emit less than 250 tons [emphasized in the Booth report] are very minor contributors to overall air quality. The PSD permitting program is designed appropriately to focus on larger emitters given they are the source of the vast majority of emissions in this country.” The organization also rebuts Booth’s statements about biomass and hazardous air pollutants and the equivalence of biomass boilers and waste-burning incinerators.

Several of the assumptions questioned in 2012 bear repeating and applying to the American situation as described in the 2014 report:

Logs cut for biomass (sustainableheatingsolutions.com)• All of a tree is burned for biomass energy.
• Wood is the only source of biomass.
• There is a defined capacity of forestland and we can’t increase or improve it.

“Biomass frequently only uses parts of the trees that have no other commercial use, such as thinnings, smaller branches and off-cuts, which would otherwise be wasted. Higher demand for well-managed forests means helping forests to become more productive and even bringing currently neglected forests back into use. 60% of the UK’s forest land, for example, is currently unmanaged….

“Non-forest sources of biomass [include] energy crops and agricultural by-products…. [Also,] biomass burned for energy is sourced from by-products and residues or is a material, such as non-recyclable waste wood, that has no other economic value and therefore goes to landfill…. Alternative demand for bioenergy, often met by wood that previously had little value, can underpin the investment case for better forest management and new forest plantation.”

US biomass resources (NREL, 2005)

A US-focused perspective on biomass sources, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimated in its “Geographic Perspective” on the American biomass resource (2005) that less than 40% of American biomass feedstock came from wood. Lumber mills provided 19% of it; forest residues, 13%; and “urban wood,” 7%. Crop residues were the largest single contributor, and Conservation Reserve Program switchgrass came in next, just surpassing wood from lumber mills. The map above shows available resources by county. In 2011, The Wall Street Journal reported that renewables constituted about 8% of US energy, with 49% of the total coming from biomass.

Some green theorists and organizations that usually reject carbon capture and storage schemes outright believe that their only possible use could be with biomass plants. In fact, biomass power can probably be useful as a transitional fuel without introducing untried and expensive collateral technology. Cogeneration (CHP), district heating with biomass, and new synfuel technologies appear to offer greater promise.

In rebutting some of the 2012 claims, Paul Thompson, head of policy at the UK’s Renewable Energy Association, got to the real heart of the matter:

Coal and mining  (Sandy Dechert)

“Even when we factor in the biomass supply chain, which includes shipping and processing, its carbon footprint is dwarfed by coal.”

US coal plants (powermag.com)Coal-fired power plants in the US (powermag.com)

Thompson says that the carbon debt argument ignores the importance of good forest management and the types of wood (e.g., species, age, tree parts), the many other crops, the wood waste and forest litter, the manufactured wood pellets and charcoal, even the byproducts of natural disasters like storm and wildfire that can produce viable biomass feedstock. “All biomass used for heat and power [in the UK] saves at least 60% carbon across the entire supply chain when compared to fossil fuels.”

It may be prudent to rank biomass along with huge dam projects as a steppingstone to cleaner technologies, as the Chinese have recently proposed:

According to the China Academy of Engineering’s Renewable Resources Development Strategy Council Report, China is very rich in biomass energy resources, and biomass energy is an ideal way of effectively using all kinds of organic wastes…. Currently speaking, developing biomass energy is an important strategic measure to substitute fossil energies and guarantee energy safety.

It also dovetails with forest issues such as sensible, sustainable woodland management, prevention of loss from wildfires and watershed disruption, safety in the rural-urban interface, forest employment potential, wildlife diversity, and other issues.

The Environmental Protection Agency is revisiting restrictions on wood-burning plants this summer. Bo Peterson commented in last Sunday’s Charleston, South Carolina, Post and Courier that the EPA is in a tight spot: “The biomass industry is taking off and has wide political support. The Partnership for Policy Integrity, which issued the report, is the latest of a number environmental groups that at one point or another have questioned the looser controls on biomass, although many of the groups support biomass power to a degree.”

Biomass pellets (vdi.eu)The EPA needs to work hard on the bioenergy conundrum. Having recently implemented the Burn Wise program to emphasize the importance of consumers burning the right wood, the right way, in the right wood-burning appliance—and having proposed tough rules for the nation’s nine million inefficient wood stoves and boilers—the time has come for the EPA to apply similarly sensible standards to commercial and industrial biomass burning. Ultimately, the EPA’s regulatory decisionmaking may determine the future of a significant transitional power/heating source and a nascent, fast-growing export commodity.

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About the Author

covers environmental, health, renewable and conventional energy, and climate change news. She's worked for groundbreaking environmental consultants and a Fortune 100 health care firm, writes two top-level blogs on Examiner.com, ranked #2 on ONPP's 2011 Top 50 blogs on Women's Health, and attributes her modest success to an "indelible habit of poking around to satisfy my own curiosity."



  • Tom Busch

    Good point Ron – there is no mercury, lead, etc. in trees. Plus, there are 4 to 5 trees replanted for every one tree cut (besides, most woody biomas, at present, is generated from waste and by-products anyway).

    How is coal being mined currently? – by clearcutting 2000 or more acres and leveling the top of an entire mountain to get at the coal. Where does the spoil go? – into the valleys and hollows, at a stream-head, which acidifies the water supply form that stream.

    Here’s another absurdity – it’s perfectly OK (they get permits) to wallow around in a stream to mine gravel, yet if we were to just “wallow” across a stream with a skidder, dragging logs (to build homes, produce furniture, etc.), we’d be put “under the jail”.

    • Bob_Wallace

      ” 4 to 5 trees replanted for every one tree cut”

      Over-planting to allow for fatalities.

      And if they don’t die in large enough numbers then someone has to go back and thin.

  • Ronald Brakels

    Just to be clear, when done at all sensibly, biomass is a low emission source of electricity and/or heat. Pollution from burning things is of course a hazard. All else equal, smoke from burning coal will always be more hazardous than smoke from burning plant matter. While coal is mostly former plant matter, there’s a lot of dirt mixed up in it which can and does release heavy metals and sulphur, etc. when it’s burned. Pollution control technology can result in things not being equal when it comes to the amount and toxicity of pollution released.

  • Mack

    PFPI hints at being a “nonprofit” but this group is not registered with the State Of
    Massachusetts nor are there any filings of the IRS Form 990 on record. Who is funding this group? Are they using grant money from the coal and natural gas industries?

    One group that found this study “useful” was the nonprofit “Center for Biological Diversity” group which makes money by suing the federal government. For instant, in 2009 the Center reported income of $1,173,517 in “legal settlement.”

    Does PFPI intend on suing the EPA to make money also?

  • http://www.northquabbinforestry.com Mike Leonard

    Increasing markets for forest biomass has been great for my business and my landowner clients. A lot has been said about “carbon debts” but nothing about the great “silvicultural debt” that has built up in our forests after 1/2 century of destructive highgrade logging which “takes the best and leaves the rest”. In order to practice great forestry, we need low grade timber markets and biomass is the best one we’ve ever had. For more info see my site at: http://northquabbinforestry.com/2010/12/14/forest-biomass-markets-promote-great-forestry/ and my widely acclaimed forestry photo albums: https://www.facebook.com/MikeLeonardConsultingForester/photos_albums

  • go2zero

    BS. It’s natural gas and natural gas funded academics attacking everything that isn’t under their umbrella. The Sierra Club had already polluted their credibility getting natural gas sponsorship and academia is full of this anti non-toxic particle nonsense and fuel transitions (to natural gas). Focus on the technologies that lower organic irritant emissions to near zero, and stop the mining greed from infecting common sense policy by writing in their own loop holes. Natural gas is significantly polluting. They have been writing and blackmailing the curriculum and the rules.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Yes, we need to get NG to zero (or at least close to zero).

      But right now NG is useful in helping us get coal off the grid.

  • Matt

    Sometimes it helps to split apart a question to get a clearer understanding.
    For example, the impact of cutting virgin tree and using them for fuel is likely different from using wood recover from a demo site, waste scrap from a saw mill, old wood pallets, trees from storm damage, etc.
    But industrial bio-fuel power plants need to be held to high pollution standards also.

  • MSB

    Our rebuttal of the Biomass Power Association’s critique of
    the PFPI report (in which they compare us, hilariously, to vaccine opponents) is at http://www.pfpi.net/pfpi-response-to-biomass-power-association-and-a-challenge-lets-debate-biomass-power-in-public

    We have challenged them to debate the merits of bioenergy publicly, but are still awaiting a response.

    Mary Booth, Director
    Partnership for Policy Integrity

    • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

      Thanks. Appreciate that.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Mary, it would be interesting were you to post coal comparison numbers along with your biomass emission numbers. If we look at properly controlled biomass and coal plants how do the emissions compare?

      Biomass vs. coal. Which releases more mercury?

      Then, remember, we’ve a choice to make.

      Do we use biomass for electricity production? Or do we burn more coal which bring yet more carbon out of sequestration and add it to the carbon cycle?

      I get the feeling that you don’t fully understand the choice when you write –

      “A no-brainer, indeed! How does accelerating CO2 emissions to the atmosphere help combat climate change? That’s what burning wood does, because emissions per megawatt-hour are about 150% those of a coal plant, and 300 – 400% those of a natural gas plant.”

      Do you grasp the fact that the carbon in the wood-produced CO2 is already above ground and in the cycle while the carbon in the wood-produced CO2 was safely stored below ground before we dug it up and burned it?

      Using biomass does accelerate the return of carbon to the atmosphere, but it does not increase the amount of carbon in the system. Once we bring carbon out of storage we have no effective way to put it back.

      • MSB

        Bob, I think perhaps you should review our work, including the report, before you ask whether I “grasp” the facts. All of our work is available at http://www.pfpi.net. In addition to the latest report, I’d particularly point you to the report to the SEC on bioenergy greenwashing, which explains in detail why wood-fired bioenergy plants can’t ever be “carbon neutral” in a timeframe that we care about for reducing emissions.

        Mary Booth

        • Bob_Wallace

          I gave your first link a quick read, Mary.

          How about you address my issues?

          Surely you’ve compared emissions from properly constructed and operating coal and biomass plants. You should have that data at hand.

          And you must have considered what it means to bring more carbon from deep under the surface and adding it to the surface carbon cycle. How do you justify adding that extra carbon to our problem?

        • Marlin Johnson

          Mary –
          I’ve looked through your articles and it appears that you assumed that biomass not burned for energy is stored — more or less permanently. Is that right? I believe the CO2 in most biomass, be it switch grass, whole trees, or just the parts of trees that can’t be made into solid wood products, will go back to the atmosphere anyway. Of course not on the same time schedule. However, it will go; in much of the western U.S. the alternative for leaving it in the woods is either 1) wildfire, 2) prescribed burn it, or 3) leave it to rot. It all goes to CO2 anyway. For the coal, we know what is not used is sequestered pretty permanently.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Much of the biomass used for power (tree trimmings, lumber mill shavings, corn stover, harvested grasses/plants) will decompose in about a year, releasing their carbon back into the atmosphere. Only larger pieces of wood would sequester their carbon for more than a year. And in most cases that is ‘short years’.

            If Mary did not account for normal carbon cycle decay then just toss out her paper and claims. They’re worthless.

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