Biomass energy: the bad apple in the Administration’s renewable energy barrel

At last, President Obama has tackled climate change and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a major speech.  Recognizing that power plants are a huge source of unchecked CO2, the President is directing EPA to complete CO2 emission standards for new and existing power plants. Given that reducing emissions will require replacing as significant amount of fossil-fueled power generation with carbon neutral renewable power, clean energy advocates wonder what the Administration’s plans mean for biomass energy, the combustion of biological materials in power plants, instead of fossil fuels.

We already know what EPA is considering as a standard for new fossil fueled power plants – 1,000 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour (MWh), a standard that is difficult if not impossible for a coal plant to meet.  What about biomass energy? Start with the simple fact that a biomass power plant emits about 3,000 lb of CO2 per MWh, far more than even a coal plant.  Beyond that, the biomass power plants being built in the US are primarily wood-burners, with a typical 50 MW facility (tiny by coal plant standards) burning the equivalent of millions of trees  per year. Cutting forests for fuel degrades forest carbon uptake, and transporting wood fuel takes hundreds of trucks per week, driven thousands of miles, belching more CO2 and pollution.  Claims that stack emissions from burning biomass don’t matter – that the CO2 is eventually neutralized by forest regrowth, or that “waste” wood burned as fuel would  have eventually decomposed and emitted the CO2 anyway – are nothing more than assumptions, and unrealistic ones at that, considering that last summer the US got a taste of the climate-to-come, experiencing record-breaking temperatures, extreme weather events and massive forest fires.

Even under the best case scenario, where forests are left alone to regrow for decades after being cut for biomass fuel, current modeling and science shows that it takes several decades to neutralize the extra CO2 emitted a biomass power plant. No serious climate scientist believes we can afford to wait decades to reduce emissions, and no serious policy-maker should promote investing billions of dollars into biomass energy infrastructure, with its deferred and hypothetical benefits of carbon reductions that are decades off, alongside wind and solar, where the reduction in CO2 emissions occurs right away.

Massachusetts recognized that biomass power plants increase emissions instead of reducing them, and took low-efficiency biomass energy out of the State’s renewable portfolio. The fact that wood-burning power plants are still considered “renewable” energy sources in the rest of the country is a testimony to the biomass industry’s lobbying clout. With CO2 emissions standards for power plants finally on the Administration’s radar, however, claims that biomass energy benefits the climate may finally bump up against reality.


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