Dirtier Than Coal? Under Fire, Institute Clarifies Its Claim About Biomass

Important policy decisions are riding on accurate understanding of biomass industry's carbon footprint

Share this article

A group behind a new study that concludes biomass is dirtier than coal has tried to quell the uproar over that controversial central finding, by issuing a clarification. Generating electricity from "waste wood" creates little, if any, carbon pollution, the group said.

The clarification from the Pinchot Institute, a national conservation organization, was released on Friday after the largest U.S. biomass trade group put the heat on the study’s authors.

The report, conducted for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, had focused on the global warming impacts of producing energy from burning down forests, a highly polluting practice.

But according to the Biomass Power Association (BPA), no part of the industry in the U.S. is currently harvesting trees for burning. In actuality, the industry makes electricity by burning forest waste that otherwise would be "dumped in landfills, openly burned, or left as fodder for forest fires," the group said in a release to the press. 

"Our industry is really a byproduct industry," Bob Cleaves, CEO of BPA, told SolveClimate. "We don’t harvest trees. We don’t produce energy from crops."

Cleaves said he was "gratified" that Pinchot "was concerned about the study being misreported."

"We agree with Pinchot that the study made it very clear that fuels used by the biomass industry currently across the country are enormously beneficial to fighting climate change," he said.

Report Provokes Policy Reevaluation

Last fall, the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources commissioned the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, a local non-profit organization, to lead a study to bring "the best science to bear" as it considers the future of biomass energy policy in that state.

Three other groups, including Pinchot, contributed to the research. So far, Manomet has not responded to BPA requests to clarify the study’s conclusions. 

The final report, which is based on a lifecycle carbon accounting framework, says that "forest biomass generally emits more greenhouse gases than fossil fuels per unit of energy produced." It claims to blow a hole in the argument that biomass is a carbon-neutral renewable energy resource by saying it could take 20 to 30 years before carbon benefits are realized.

The report is likely to have policy repercussions, at least in Massachusetts. 

As part of its Global Warming Solutions Act, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050. To date, biomass has qualified to receive incentives under the state’s renewable portfolio standard, which requires utilities to get 15 percent of their electricity from clean sources by 2020.

In a press statement, Ian Bowles, state secretary of energy and environmental affairs, said he will now reevaluate current  biomass policies in response to the report’s conclusions.

"Now that we know that electricity from biomass harvested from New England forests is not ‘carbon neutral’ in a timeframe that makes sense given our legal mandate to cut greenhouse gas emissions, we need to re-evaluate our incentives for biomass," Bowles said.

‘A Theoretical Debate’

But Cleaves, whose trade group represents 80 biomass power plants, said the report is "misleading" and "inaccurate." The issue of harvesting forests to generate power "is a theoretical debate because that’s not currently what the biomass industry does," Cleaves reiterated.

According to BPA, "woody biomass residue" powers a hundred biomass power plants in 20 states across the country. And while the climate-friendly uses of such biomass waste are indeed discussed in the report, they’re "buried deep," Cleaves said, not "until page 110 of a 130-page study."

"It was certainly not in the executive summary in lights," he said.

The concern from the biomass industry is that the study’s statement on coal, which in contrast was "in lights" and grabbed national headlines, is being cited as an authoritative position.

"If people perceive biomass as cutting trees down to make power, I think it’s going to be increasingly hard to grow the biomass sector in this country," Cleaves said.

And according to Cleaves, there’s "no way" the nation would be able to meet ambitious renewable energy goals without it.

Currently, biomass provides 15 percent of the nation’s renewable energy. The Department of Energy has said that biomass consumption in electric utilities is expected to double every decade through 2030.

The resource is seen as a particularly important in Southern states, which lack wind and solar opportunities available in other states.

Battles Ahead

The study comes at a time when the biomass industry appears to be facing an almost constant uphill battle in Washington and across the nation. To help, the BPA announced the launch of a $250,000 campaign last August to raise the profile of biomass as a solution to climate change and foreign oil dependency.

In California, at least, the industry got a break when the state Air Resources Board recently concluded that biomass would be treated as carbon neutral and exempted from coming cap-and-trade regulation. 

Cleaves told SolveClimate that Massachusetts should have looked to the golden state, which boasts the most biomass plants in the nation, for guidance.

"Before the Commonwealth of Massachusetts goes half cocked and studies biomass they should look at some of their sister states that have been at this for a long time and understand the environmental benefits of it," he said.

EPA to Weigh In

Next up for the industry is the Environmental Protection Agency’s "tailoring rule," which will determine threshold emissions under the Clean Air Act for the biggest sources of greenhouse gas pollution. So far, it’s not looking good for biomass.

In its final statement released in May, the EPA said the tailoring ruling would not exempt biomass producers from carbon regulation, meaning the energy source would fall in the same fossil fuel league as coal and other traditional power sources.

The decision came as a shock to many in the industry. In a statement last month on the ruling, BPA said:

"Equating biomass emissions with fossil fuel emissions ignores the fact that carbon from fossil fuels has been buried for thousands of years deep in the Earth, and burning those fossil fuels to generate electricity introduces massive amounts of new carbon into the atmosphere."

EPA, which is expected to begin regulating heat-trapping gases in January 2011, said the biomass issue is not a done deal and said it would seek further comments. Cleaves said the industry plans to participate in discussions. "Biomass is clearly carbon neutral," he said. "There shouldn’t really even be a debate it."

"I don’t want EPA to make the same mistakes that apparently some folks from Massachusetts have made, which is looking at the concept of biomass as a monolithic fuel source," he added. "Biomass comes in many different shapes and sizes."

See also:

New Questions about Toxic By-Products of Biofuel Combustion

Expiring Tax Credits Imperil America’s Booming Biomass Industry

Biochar and George Monbiot’s Misguided Rant

Forests Caught in Tug-of-War Over Biofuel Rules