Biomass confusion in the U.S.
The Biomass Power Association is requesting an apology and a clarification statement from the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for misinformation communicated in a study released June 10.
“Biomass Sustainability and Carbon Policy Study, , 5 MB” examines biomass energy in the state of Massachusetts, but bases its analyses on new forest biomass instead of the waste wood most biomass plants use or propose to use. It’s a subject of grave concern for the members of the BPA who do business in 20 states, according to Bob Cleaves, president and CEO of the BPA. “The report issued by Manomet on behalf of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has generated both a lot of interest, but also a tremendous amount of confusion and misinformation about a very, very important issue for our industry and that issue is carbon impacts from utilizing biomass in the production of electricity,” he said.
In response to the study, Cleaves emphasized four major principles of the BPA and its members that guide operations: only sustainable fuels that do not contribute to land-use changes and offer much lower greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuels are used; members do not promote harvesting of forests for energy; members fully support use of wood waste and byproducts from sustainable forestry; and members support the use of nonforestry waste from the agricultural industry. The Manomet study completely ignores waste wood fuels for the first 109 pages, Cleaves said, addressing them almost as an afterthought on page 110: “All bioenergy technologies, even biomass electric power compared to natural gas electric, looks favorable when biomass waste wood is compared to fossil fuel alternatives.”
In November 2009, under the direction of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) Secretary Ian Bowles, the Department of Energy Resources (DOER) commissioned a team to conduct a comprehensive six-month study of issues related to biomass sustainability and carbon policy (also referred to as the Manomet Study).
The team was charged with developing a significant, objective white paper that brings the best science to bear as DOER considers the path forward for biomass energy policy, including the preparation of new regulations to establish sustainability criteria that biomass facilities must meet under the Massachusetts Renewable Portfolio Standard.
The Biomass Sustainability and Carbon Policy Study, released in June 2010, addresses the following issues:
- Sustainable forest management and ecological implications of biomass harvesting
- Carbon sequestration of forests with and without forest management
- Net effect of biomass energy on atmospheric carbon balance
- U.S. and international policies in regard to biomass and carbon neutrality
The Biomass Sustainability and Carbon Policy Study, and supporting materials, are available below.
- Biomass Sustainability and Carbon Policy Study (high resolution)
- Biomass Sustainability and Carbon Policy Study (low resolution)
- Executive Summary
- Introductory Letter to Stakeholders from DOER Commissioner Giudice
- Chapters and Appendices
Led by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, the study was conducted by a team of environmental professionals recognized nationally and internationally in forestry and conservation. An Independent Advisory Panel reviewed the team’s work.
In addition to the Manomet Center, the Forest Guild, the Pinchot Institute for Conservation, and the Biomass Energy Resource Center (BERC) have all contributed staff and resources to the study.
Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences is a relatively small but influential non-profit organization based in Manomet, Massachusetts, which is helping to build a sustainable world based on healthy natural systems that support human and wildlife populations.
The Forest Guild is a national organization of more than 700 foresters, allied professionals, and supporters who manage forestlands in the United States and Canada and are stewards of and advocates for ecologically sound forest practices. Its mission is to practice and promote ecologically, economically, and socially responsible forestry as a means of sustaining the integrity of forest ecosystems and the human communities dependent upon them.
The Pinchot Institute for Conservation is a leading forest conservation and policy organization. With the goal of informing the national discourse on climate and energy policy, the Institute is exploring the role of sustainably managed forests in our nation’s energy future.
Biomass Energy Resource Center is a national non-profit organization based in Montpelier, Vermont. Its mission is to achieve a healthier environment, strengthen local economies, and increase energy security across the United States, through the development of sustainable biomass energy systems at the community level
The system requires utilities to provide a certain amount of their power from renewable sources, but new research claims that using biomass to generate electricity can produce more greenhouse gas emissions than coal in worst cases.
The study from the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences highlights the emissions difficulties if biomass power projects do not ensure the fuel they use is not all being replaced by new growth.
The state has said it will be carrying out a series of public meetings over the summer as it seeks to revise its policy in the light of the study.
State energy secretary Ian Bowles said the findings of the report had “broad implications” for clean energy policy.
He said: “Biomass energy can be renewable over the long term and it has benefits in independence from imported fossil fuels. But 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.”
However, landowners and forestry organizations fear that if this summer’s public meetings do not correctly interpret the Manomet research, damage could be done to rural forestry projects.
The Forest Landowners Association said on Friday that the study was wrong to assume that landowners would simply strip areas of forestry and sell wood cheaply for power generation without seeking to plant new growth.
By restricting the contribution of biomass power projects to Massachusetts renewable energy projects, the Association said landowners could find no alternative but to sell their land for development.
The Manomet Center, which is located in near Plymouth, Massachusetts, led a team of scientists on a six-month study of biomass sustainability and carbon policy.
The report did give considerable support to the use of biomass fuels in replacing oil as a heating fuel or in combined heat and power projects. Biomass could cut emissions by 25% in such projects, it said.
But when using woody biomass for purely electricity generation, the report suggested that for each unit of energy generated, biomass fuel actually generated 3% more emissions than coal.
This calculation was based on the immediate emissions from burning biomass, however, with the study adding that the biomass emissions could be “paid off” over time as new biomass is growth to replace it.
For replacing oil as a heating fuel, for every unit of energy generated with biomass, five years would be needed to repay the “carbon debt”, the report claimed.
Compared to coal-fired power stations, the debt pay-off of biomass fuel would be 21 years according to the study.
Studying the situation in Massachusetts, the report suggested that with the current market prices and renewable energy incentives, the biomass energy sector could increase the amount of wood harvested from 150,000 tons to 250,000 tons per year.
It warned about potential local impacts from the harvesting of wood, including the aesthetics and impact on tourism.
There were also warnings that biomass could reduce the amount of woody biomass that ends up left on the ground, with a resulting impact on future soil quality.
The state’s Department of Energy Resources, which commissioned the research, said this month that it will now review its Renewable Portfolio Standard system in the light of the report.
Biomass has qualified for state renewable energy incentives since 2002, but the scheme was closed to new biomass power projects in December 2009, pending the results of the Manomet study.
The Manomet study suggests four options to strengthen biomass policy – with a self-regulating system for the biomass sector, a requirement for biomass power projects to buy wood only from forests operating approved forest management programs, require biomass projects to submit wood supply impact assessments, or devise a set of criteria for wood supply impact assessments.
We can begin refining our regulations to provide incentives only for biomass energy that truly reduces our greenhouse gas emissions” - Phil Giudice, Massachusetts energy commissioner
Current forest-cutting regulations already provide “considerable” protection for water quality and forest regeneration, the report notes. But, it recommends extra requirements including the need to leave woody debris on the ground to protect soil quality.
This summer’s public meetings will lead to a formal revision to the Renewable Portfolio Standard to include standards governing biomass feedstock and greenhouse gas impacts.
Department Commissioner Phil Giudice said: “With the scientific information provided by the Manomet team, we can begin the process of refining our renewable energy regulations to provide incentives only for biomass energy that truly reduces our greenhouse gas emissions and protects our forests.”
Following on from the debate surrounding biofuels, the issue of biomass fuel sustainability is already the subject of discussions in Europe, where a set of sustainability targets is being drawn up for the European Union.
In the US, moves by Massachusetts could be followed by other states to ensure biomass power projects are not unsustainable.
However, commenting on the Manomet study, the national advocacy organization for family forest owners, the Forest Landowners Association, said it disagreed with the findings that woody biomass was “more harmful” than coal as a power source.
With forest owners interested in running a sustainable business, the Association also disagreed with the assumption that biomass projects would harvest timber without replacing lost trees.
Scott Jones, FLA’s CEO, said: “The idea that private landowners would clear their forests and sell high-value whole trees at a discount so they can be used to produce woody-biomass fuels is nonsensical, because it flies in the face of basic resource economics. Contrary to the state’s concern in that regard, to our knowledge there is absolutely no precedent of this happening in any part of the country.”
Mr Jones said that private landowners manage 60% o America’s forest land, and that to cope with the expense of managing forests, they required a series of markets for higher quality and lower quality wood.
He warned: “Without these varied outlets for their wood products, the economics of land ownership often do not work and many forest landowners will have difficulties maintaining their forestlands as forests, which is not in the interest of society as a whole.”