Utility Biomass Threatens Ohio’s Forests

An update from Cheryl Johncox at the small yet mighty Buckeye Forest Council:
Power companies in Ohio have set their sights on burning trees for electricity as a way to get a few more years out of their oldest and dirtiest coal-fired power plants. Utility-scale biomass proposals in the State represent the greatest threat Ohio’s forests have faced since the late Industrial Revolution, when nearly the entire state was clearcut to fuel iron furnaces. Ohio has included “trees” in its definition of renewable energy sources, and utilities appear willing to exploit this to the maximum extent possible. Under Ohio’s renewable energy laws, utilities can receive certification from the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) to collect renewable energy credits (RECs) for burning wood fuel. Utilities can then sell RECs for profit, or use them to help satisfy state requirements to generate 12.5% of their electricity from “renewable” sources by 2025. If utilities can rely on biomass energy from forest resources to satisfy their renewable energy requirements, they have less incentive to invest in truly renewable energy options, such as wind and solar. In effect, the state is subsidizing burning our forests and is disincentivizing truly renewable, sustainable forms of energy as well as promotion of efficiency and conservation.
Ten Ohio coal-fired power plants are either certified or awaiting renewable energy certification to generate approximately 2100 megawatts (MW) from burning wood. Nearly 30 million tons of trees would be required to fuel them each year. That would be 645% of Ohio’s annual tree growth. Tree burning on this scale could cut and burn through all Ohio’s forestlands within a decade and completely deforest the state within two decades.
Trees are targeted for fuel materials, over agricultural crops and waste because old coal boilers experience many problems from burning agricultural crops.[1] But burning wood for electricity is terribly inefficient; biomass incinerators generally operate at 25% efficiency. That is, for every 100 trees burned, only 25 are converted into energy. Moreover, wood fuel actually releases more CO2 than coal or natural gas per unit of energy generated. At the stack, carbon emissions from wood-fired biomass facilities are 50% greater than from coal, and 300 – 400% greater than from natural gas. However, stack emissions are only part of the lifecycle carbon emissions of forest harvesting, which include fossil fuels used for harvest and transport, lost carbon sequestration, and soil disturbance following logging. For instance, studies have shown that a replanted clearcut actually gives off more CO2 than it absorbs for as long as 30 years.[2]
There is currently no agency oversight on biomass fuels or their production and transport. The PUCO has stated that the use of forest resources as biomass energy is conditioned upon sustainable forest management operation[3], but the agency has not established any standards to evaluate, let alone ensure, this claim is true. The Ohio EPA, likewise, has stated that it does not have the authority to inspect biomass fuel content or even to consider the air pollution that results from burning various types of biomass fuel.
         The evidence is clear, from industry reports and permits, that so called “renewable energy” biomass incinerators emit a lethal mix of toxic chemicals into our air and water – this includes deadly particulates such as PM 2.5, mercury, lead, formaldehyde, benzene, dioxins and greenhouse gases. Leading medical organizations including the American Lung Association, Massachusetts Medical Society, North Carolina Academy of Family Physicians, Florida Medical Association, and Physicians for Social Responsibility oppose incentives for biomass incinerators because they present an “unacceptable health risk.”
·         The Ohio Legislature should eliminate the use of whole trees and whole- tree-derived fuel as eligible for Renewable Energy Credits (REC) in the Ohio Administrative Code (OAC).
·         The Ohio Legislature should restrict RECs to woody biomass derived from manufacturing wood waste and invasive species management in the OAC.
·         Utilities companies should be required to have all biomass fuel materials certified as being derived from manufacturing waste wood before receiving renewable energy certification.
   For more information: www.buckeyeforestcouncil.org

[1]Spelter, Henry; Toth, Daniel. 2009. North America’s wood pellet sector.  U.S. Department of Agricul­ture, Forest Service, Forest Products 
Laboratory, p. 6.

[2]See Center for Biological Diversity’s December 2008 Comments on Timber Harvesting Plan: Swamped (4-08-020-CAL)www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/…/Swamped_THP_Comments.pdf for a literature review of this and related issues.

[3]In the Matter of the Application of Bay Shore Unit 1 for Certification as an Eligible Ohio Renewable Energy Resources Generating Facility, Case No. 09-1042-EL-REN, Entry on Rehearing (June 16, 2010)

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