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Biomass to Electricity – EPA Warned of Potential Issues


2007-200The transformation of biomass to electricity was once considered a carbon neutral energy source.

By allowing power plants to substitute natural fuel (biomass) in lieu of coal, they are able to avoid fossil-fuel carbon emissions.

This has proven to be an egregiously misinformed strategy. With trees being half water by weight, they automatically come with less energy per unit than coal and other fossil fuels, meaning that in order to reach output parity with their dirty counterparts, a much larger proportion of trees must be burned, making the process wildly inefficient and that could cause environmental issues.

In fact, the biomass to electricity route leads to, on average, a 40% rise in carbon emission at the smokestack per unit of energy generated. This lack of efficiency is compounded by the length of time required to grow another tree in its place, a timeline that fails to keep pace with the urgency of our current climate issues.

With the (slow) realization that deforestation and climate change walk in lock step with each other, the issue of biomass energy production and the way we treat our forests, has become an problem of global relevance, with dire consequences if not acted upon.

The latest warning of this impending crisis comes from a group of scientists who have their siights set on the the Environmental Protection Agency, a government institution that serves a vital purpose, but is susceptible to outside interests and a snail-like pace of movement that bureaucracies have unfortunately become known for.

With the EPA in the concluding stages of three-year discovery process on the analysis and creation of rules to properly quantify biomass to electricity carbon emissions, now is the time for climate experts to lead the agency in the right direction.

This fact was not lost on the group of 41 scientists, who collaborated on a letter arguing against the use of trees as a source of biomass energy. The main call to action in the letter, in addition to highlighting the many negative effects resulting from tree biomass energy,  was for the EPA to establish a biomass regulatory system that is based on sound science, ensuring adequate protections for forests and the climate.

The argument in favor of such a system is hard to deny: “Doing otherwise at this juncture will fail the test of rigorous, science-based policy-making and could result in regulations that distort the marketplace towards greater use of unsustainable sources of biomass, with significant risks to our climate, forests and the valuable ecosystem services they provide and we rely on.”

The letter provided recommendations on the best course of action, giving the EPA three important keystones for progressing beyond our current modus operandi:

1. Moving beyond the flawed assumption that bioenergy is inherently carbon neutral

(i.e. forest are carbon sinks, meaning that diminishing these resources will contribute directly to an even greater increase in carbon emissions…and unlike other forms of more energy-efficient biomass like perennial grasses or harvest residue, trees take a very, very long time to regrow )

2. Rejecting the regional accounting method originally proposed in the draft Accounting Framework

(i.e. taking credit for forest growth and carbon sequestration that would be happening anyway would represent a major carbon accounting error, since diminishing a carbon sink is the same as increasing carbon emissions from the perspective of the atmosphere)

3. Ensuring a scientifically-sound methodology for determining the carbon emissions impact

to the atmosphere from burning long-recovery biomass feed-stocks—most notably, whole trees. (“it is the lone way to ensure that only carbon reductions above and beyond what would have happened anyway are credited against smokestack emissions under EPA’s biogenic carbon accounting framework.”)

These are extremely important tenets of a future strategy, considering that forests and biodiversity are areas of the environment that are surprisingly devoid of necessary regulation.

Danna Smith, Executive Director of Dogwood Alliance, an environmental NGO that campaigns for the protection of forests and their biodiversity in the southern US, says, “there’s an assumption that there’s lots of regulation and forestry is therefore sustainably managed in the US:

“This assumption is false. In the southern US, around 90 percent of forests are privately owned and logging practices are not regulated at all. Industrial logging is rampant with no real legal protections for biodiversity, watersheds, and local communities across the southern US.”

Knowing the huge roadblocks and risks involved, the letter concluded with the following statement:

Instead of allowing polluting facilities to ‘free ride’ on existing forest growth in their regions, we urge EPA to follow the science by putting in place a system that links emitter behavior directly to what’s happening on the landscape and rigorously assesses the incremental carbon emissions impacts of bioenergy production. We believe this is the only way to create the necessary market incentives to encourage bioenergy facilities to source low-carbon biomass resources, efficiently burn or otherwise convert them to electricity, and to use the electricity and heat in the applications that most effectively reduce net GHG emissions.

A healthy environment requires trees. They act as a natural sentry, reducing pollution and keeping the climate in order. Using trees as a source of biomass energy is not only bad policy, it is a road to nowhere that will only exacerbate our problems.

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  1. There are carbon negative ways of using biomass to produce electricity, the power pallet by All Power Labs is a recent example.


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