It’s a measure of how pervasive the “biomass benefits climate” myth has become that even the well-respected Climate Progress blog (defunct as of 2019), edited by the great Joe Romm, seems to have bought into the propaganda. Writing for Climate Progress about Dominion Energy’s plan to convert three coal plants in Virginia to burn biomass for a total of 150 MW capacity, Steven Lacey concludes that
“Assuming companies like Dominion are sourcing their feedstocks from waste products (they say that they are), biomass can be an important tool in helping transition away from fossil-based resources, despite some of the drawbacks.”
We think Lacey’s got it 100% wrong, and that the Climate Progress analysis is guilty of the same thing many enviro biomass apologists are: that is, swallowing biomass industry claims whole.
For instance – Lacey is too credulous about claims that switching to biomass reduces emissions of CO2. In fact, switching to biomass at the three plants will not only increase emissions in the absolute sense (since the three plants will go from intermittent operations to 24-7 operation) but will also increase the rate of CO2 emissions per MWh generated (because wood is a wet and inefficient fuel, and thus emits more carbon per unit of energy produced than coal). While lauding the fact that the plants will go from being “peakers” to baseload, Lacey strangely forgets that every minute a plant is running, it’s pumping CO2 into the atmosphere.
Let’s attach some numbers for illustration. EPA data from the “clean air markets” report shows that combined, the three Dominion plants emitted 505,412 tons of CO2 in 2009, and 691,386 tons of CO2 in 2010. Once the plants are converted to biomass, however, their nearly fulltime operation will emit around 1.8 million tons of CO2 per year, doubling to tripling the CO2 pumped into the atmosphere. So how is this helping the climate, again? Why does Lacey ignore this, and where is his acknowledgement of Climate Progress’s position that we need to reduce emissions immediately if we are to tackle climate change?
We’re also surprised that Climate Progress seems so credulous regarding Dominion’s claims that they’ll only burn waste wood at the three facilities. An awful lot of biomass burners are being constructed around the country based on this premise, but the math simply doesn’t hold up. Forest inventory data from the Forest Service tells us that there are about 100 million green tons of forestry residues generated each year through commercial timber operations. Assuming that a full 50% of this were collected (a logistical impossibility to say nothing the impact on soil fertility and carbon stocks) and then burned at relatively high efficiency in coal plants, this would displace about 2.5% of coal use in the US.
If waste wood won’t meet emerging biomass fuel demand, what will? Given that the overwhelming majority of the more than 100 large-scale biomass plants proposed around the country plan to burn wood as fuel, the obvious conclusion is that they’ll increase forest harvesting.
While Lacey gives a nod to the findings of the Manomet report, he fails to report the central finding of that study – that when forest harvesting is increased to provide biomass fuel, lifecycle carbon emissions from burning biomass at utility-scale plants are greater than emissions from coal, creating a carbon debt that takes more than 40 years to pay off (Lacey reports this as “more than 20 years”). Given that the three converted Dominion coal plants will themselves burn more than 1.8 million tons of wood a year for fuel, and also taking into account the several other facilities in the region that burn wood, it is overwhelmingly likely that the plants will rely on whole trees and not just “residues” for fuel.
Lacey calms concerns here with the following reassurance: if not harvested correctly, biomass may not be much better than mountaintop removal, but
“if done in a thoughtful, environmentally and community-conscious way, the value of biomass increases substantially.”
The following picture was taken in Maine, where about one quarter of the electricity generated in state comes from burning wood. We’re pretty sure this isn’t the kind of thoughtful, environmentally and community-conscious harvesting Lacey has in mind, but the fact is, this is the kind of harvesting that is economically viable for a biomass industry that appears to need subsidies for fuel delivery to even survive. A new report from the Cary Institute on biomass availability in the northeast reveals that Maine is a state where the current rate of harvesting exceeds forest growth, meaning that the state’s forests as a whole are a net source of carbon.
Moosehead Lake area biomass harvest, Maine. (Jim Wallace, Gun Owners Action League, MA)
The industry knows that the idea that forestry residues can provide adequate fuel is polite fiction dished out for enviros. Dig a little further into the documents, however, and the real intent to burn whole trees is clear. Duke Energy went before the North Carolina Utilities Commission to get them to declare that whole trees, and not just residues, as eligible fuel for co-firing in their coal plants. Duke testified that if the definition of biomass were confined to strictly wood waste, the company
“would be forced to significantly alter its REPs compliance strategy if the definition of ‘biomass resource’ was interpreted as a matter of law to exclude all other wood fuel sources except ‘wood waste’… Most (residues) are left at the harvest site because they are considered uneconomic to transport and have low quality for utilization due to size, dirt, and bark content”.
The case was contested by the Southern Environmental Law Center and Environmental Defense, as well as the packaging corporation MeadWestvaco, but Duke Energy prevailed.
Duke isn’t the only company forthright about their need to harvest trees. Lots of existing plants have admitted as much. A clear and recent example is Laidlaw’s proposed 75 MW biomass plant in Berlin New Hampshire, which the company states will burn
“ whole tree wood chips and other low-grade wood, often referred to as “biomass materials”, which are the byproducts of the local forest products industry and land management practices. Generally, whole tree chips are produced from trees unsuitable for use in lumber or paper mills, or from the tops and branches of trees harvested for lumber.”
The Laidlaw plant’s air permit states the plant will burn about 113 tons of “whole logs” per hour (about equivalent to an acre’s worth of trees), or almost a million tons a year. The plant’s power purchase agreement was protested by four smaller biomass power facilities, claiming fuel competition from the massive facility will put them out of business.
As evidence for the feasibility of using identified biomass materials as fuel to displace coal, Lacey cites the now infamous 2005 DOE report that claimed that
The fact that Dominion says they’ll just burn wastes means one of two things.
1. Either the company is genuinely ignorant of how difficult and uneconomic it is to collect forestry residues
2. Or (more likely) they’re aware of the State’s definition of biomass (listed in full at the end of this post), which includes not only trees, but human poop, animal poop, animal carcasses, and construction waste (which of course has been carefully sorted by an army of good-hearted renewable energy elves to remove any traces of heavy metals or chemical contamination).
Now might be a good time to mention that burning this material – and yes, even “clean” wood from trees – emits a lot of pollution. So much so, in fact, that major medical organizations like the Massachusetts Medical Society, the Florida Medical Society, and the American Lung Association oppose the use of biomass for energy. Biomass usually contains less sulfur than coal, yes (unless you’re burning biosolids or construction waste that contains gypsum), but an abundance of emissions data confirm that burning biomass emits as much or more particulate matter, carbon monoxide, hazardous air pollutants, and ozone precursors like volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides as coal. But why let a little conventional pollution get in the way, when you’re on a mission to reduce carbon emissions?
Adding insult to injury is the bill that taxpayers and electricity ratepayers pay for this magnificent boondoggle that cuts forests, exacerbates climate change, and increases air pollution in the name of renewable energy. Lacey says the transformation of Dominion into a renewable energy company will only cost ratepayers 14 cents a month, but neglects to mention that’s just the initial rate increase, put in place to “lessen the larger rate impact that could occur when power stations go into service”. We think ratepayers had better hold onto their wallets. The total cost of converting the three power plants is currently projected at $165 million, or $55 million apiece. On the other hand, Dominion can expect to do well out of the deal. After the conversion, the company will net around $31 million a year in ratepayer-funded renewable energy credits, and about another $18 million in federal renewable energy tax credits. Ratepayers and taxpayers will be footing that bill, whether they know it or not. [VA Business links no longer live]
The bottom line is that biomass is a coal enabler that gives a new lease on life to dirty old plants that are barely operating. You can’t blame the utilities for swooping in to take advantage of the subsidies that exist for renewable energy. But you can blame policy-makers and environmentalists who should do their due diligence, for putting in place policies that favor dirty combustion as renewable energy. This is hardly the clean energy that consumers were expecting.
Biomass means organic material that is available on a renewable or recurring basis, including:
1. Forest-related materials, including uncontaminated mill residues, logging residues, forest thinnings, slash, brush, low-commercial value materials or undesirable species, and woody material harvested for the purpose of forest fire fuel reduction or forest health and watershed improvement;
2. Agricultural-related materials, including orchard trees, vineyard, grain or crop residues, including straws, aquatic plants and agricultural processed co-products and waste products, including fats, oils, greases, whey, and lactose;
3. Animal waste, including manure and slaughterhouse and other animal processing waste;
4. Solid woody waste materials, including landscape trimmings, waste pallets, crates and manufacturing, construction, and demolition wood wastes, excluding pressure-treated, chemically treated or painted wood wastes and wood contaminated with plastic;
5. Crops and trees planted for the purpose of being used to produce energy:
6. Landfill gas, wastewater treatment gas, and biosolids, including organic waste byproducts generated during the wastewater treatment process; and
7. Municipal solid waste, excluding tires and medical and hazardous waste.