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BEST-L  February 2011

BEST-L February 2011

Subject:

Growth of Wood Biomass Power Stokes Concern on Emissions

From:

"Granovskaya,Yelena" <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Granovskaya,Yelena

Date:

Tue, 15 Feb 2011 15:51:53 -0500

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (235 lines)

Dear BESTers,

As a former resident of Gainesville, I was highly interested in the 
ongoing conversation about the GRE biomass plant. Below is an article 
from Yale e360 about the carbon neutrality of burning woody biomass as 
a power source. Although burning wood is by no means a new power 
source, in the age of climate awareness we should tread softly and 
analyze the subsidies and credits that are appropriate for the 
renewable portfolio standards associated with this green energy source.

The question is, whether market economies will allow enough time for 
carbon emitted to equal the carbon sequestered; and whether utilities 
will work with environmental managers savvy enough to not let whole 
forests be grown and then cut down for woody biomass. Of course with 
careful management, utilizing waste wood/forestry products only, the 
energy from biomass production can be carbon neutral. Another question, 
is whether there is enough of such product to generate enough power for 
the prospected megawatts. I think most of us agree that biomass is a 
resource which can be utilized well if it is appropriate to the 
region's potential.



http://e360.yale.edu/feature/growth_of_wood_biomass_power_stokes_concern_on_emissions_/2369/

"It seems modest, as power plants go — a 29-megawatt facility, 
situated just north of the Vermont-Massachusetts line, that will burn 
woody biomass to generate enough power for 25,000 to 30,000 homes. But 
like many proposed plants in the recently reborn biomass power industry 
— a supposedly renewable and clean energy source — the Vermont 
project is encountering significant opposition.

“We live in a wooded, hilly part of New England, so it’s easy to 
sweep your arm around and say, ‘Look at all these trees. How can 
there not be enough biomass to operate this plant?’” says Charley 
Stevenson, co-director of a citizens group in the area that is opposing 
the plant. “But when you start to look at the scale of the proposed 
plant, the answer to that becomes less clear.”

The Pownal plant, one of two that Beaver Wood Energy has proposed in 
Vermont, faces the types of concerns confronting the entire industry. 
Biomass proponents have long claimed the power source can be carbon 
neutral — that the amount of carbon dioxide released into the 
atmosphere by burning trees and wood waste in a biomass plant will be 
offset by the growth of new trees to replace the old ones. However, 
evidence has accumulated that although biomass has the potential for 
some carbon benefit compared to fossil fuels, burning wood isn’t as 
simple a climate solution as many thought.

Combusting wood to produce heat and energy is not a new concept. In 
fact, whoever first rubbed two sticks together tens of thousands of 
years ago was an early biomass proponent. And biomass power plants are 
certainly not new — most of the several-hundred existing plants were 
built decades ago. But in recent years, as interest in renewable energy 
has grown, the industry has awakened and dozens, if not hundreds, of 
new plants have been proposed in the U.S. or are at some stage of a 
permitting process. Although some of the more intense battles over 
biomass power plants have taken place in New England, biomass projects 
are being proposed across the U.S., from the Pacific Northwest to the 
Southeast.

The awakening can be pegged directly to two developments: the growth 
of state renewable portfolio standards, which require that a certain 
percentage of a state’s electricity be generated by green energy, and 
federal policies that provide large incentives for renewable energy 
projects.

Biomass is listed right alongside wind, solar, and other carbon-free 
power sources in various regulations, a fact that can be traced to a 
single questionable idea: that burning biomass for power generation is 
carbon neutral.

“People are waking up to the fact that this is not such a good 
deal,” says William Moomaw, director of the Center for International 
Environment and Resource Policy at Tufts University. “We could decide 
we’re going to do it, but right now we’re giving these huge 
subsidies and carbon credits for something that is not carbon 
neutral.”

Among the first to call attention to the problem of simply labeling it 
all carbon neutral was a paper in Science in 2009. The paper, written 
by Princeton University’s Timothy Searchinger and colleagues, pointed 
out that when all biomass is considered beneficial in carbon accounting 
terms, the economics tend to favor converting large amounts of land 
into forests planted solely to be cut down and burned, thus increasing 
CO2 emissions.

The only way that biomass achieves carbon neutrality is if growing 
forests sequester — that is, absorb from the atmosphere — as much 
or more carbon dioxide than is released in the burning process. If 
those forests get burned and none spring up to replace them, there is 
clearly a net addition of carbon to the atmosphere. And even if there 
is a one-to-one ratio of burned trees to growing trees, there is a 
timing problem. It takes only seconds to burn a tree’s worth of wood, 
and decades for that tree to grow back and sequester the same amount of 
carbon.

In fact, a study commissioned by the state of Massachusetts and 
conducted by the Massachusetts-based Manomet Center for Conservation 
Sciences suggested that for at least 30 years from the initial cutting 
of trees for biomass, there is actually a “carbon debt” compared to 
the burning of coal. It is only after several decades of tree regrowth 
that biomass power can start to show an emissions advantage over the 
dirtiest of fuels.

Still, biomass burning can approach carbon neutrality if forests are 
carefully managed and biomass power sources are restricted to waste 
wood products and material that would otherwise decompose on the forest 
floor and emit greenhouse gases anyway.

Because of the confusion surrounding biomass’s carbon neutrality, 
the EPA last month announced a plan to defer for three years the 
greenhouse gas permitting requirements for biomass facilities, 
ostensibly to allow time for better research into the proper ways to 
use biomass. This comes at the start of the agency’s effort to 
regulate carbon emissions from large sources around the country, and 
biomass proponents are happy for the deferral.

The biomass power industry says it does not want to cut down whole 
trees — let alone whole forests — just to produce electricity. 
Instead, the power plants will use wood residues from paper and timber 
mills and woody waste taken from other forestry practices.

“We would never defend the proposition that it is carbon neutral to 
take an acre of trees, burn those trees in a boiler, and pave that acre 
over for a Walmart,” says Bob Cleaves, president of the Biomass Power 
Association.

Though Tufts’ Moomaw and other experts seem to agree that at its 
absolute best, practices involving waste wood probably come close to 
carbon neutrality, they disagree on whether enough of the waste exists.

Mary Booth — a scientist who in 2009 helped found the Massachusetts 
Environmental Energy Alliance, which opposes biomass burning — says 
that Massachusetts has only about 100,000 green tons (meaning, with the 
substantial moisture content included in the weight) of woody waste 
material available for use each year. She says that an average biomass 
plant needs about 13,000 tons of wood to produce 1 megawatt of 
electricity for one year; with biomass plants that average about 40 to 
50 megawatt capacities, the state would run out of megawatts quickly.

Take the proposed Pownal plant, as well as its sister plant in Fair 
Haven, Vermont. They each would need about 350,000 tons of wood 
annually to produce at the stated capacity of 29 megawatts. Thomas 
Emero, one of the founding partners of Beaver Wood Energy, says that 
analyses have shown that taking half of the available waste wood from 
forest floors within 50 miles of Pownal would be enough to power the 
plant. The waste — otherwise unusable tops of trees, branches, and 
the like — would be created by existing logging operations, though a 
small portion would be added from a wood pellet plant connected to the 
Pownal power generating station.

“Within that same 50-mile radius, tree growth exceeds harvest by 2.4 
million tons per year,” Emero says. “If that isn’t sustainable, 
then I don’t know what is.”

With so many other plants proposed, though, opponents see the 
equations differently. “There is no way that they aren’t harvesting 
more trees that would not otherwise be harvested,” Booth says.

Elsewhere in New England, similar issues have arisen. One proposed 
plant in Berlin, New Hampshire, has seen substantial opposition from 
within its own industry. A number of existing, small biomass facilities 
have argued against the Laidlaw Energy Group’s proposal for a 
65-megawatt plant because it would substantially raise fuel prices. In 
other words, there isn’t enough wood in the region to go around.

As a result of the Manomet and other studies, Massachusetts will 
become the first state to actually put restrictions on types of biomass 
that can be included under the renewable portfolio standard. The 
changes are not yet finalized, but the draft regulation would limit 
biomass fuel to “non-forest derived and forest derived residues, 
forest salvage, and energy crops.”

Some say, though, that Massachusetts could be setting a standard that 
limits even truly beneficial biomass utilization. “We do see a danger 
of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, because the draft 
regulation would essentially do away with stand-alone biopower 
facilities,” says John Rogers, a senior energy analyst with the Union 
of Concerned Scientists. “There's a concern, if we’re setting the 
bar too high, that we’re cutting out biomass resources that the 
science says can be beneficial.”

Yet with every state except Massachusetts still using a generic 
biomass definition that doesn’t set limits, there could be 
substantial dangers. Booth helped conduct a study with the 
Environmental Working Group that made some stark estimates: Given the 
relatively modest projected growth of wind and solar power in the near 
future, to generate 25 percent of all U.S. electricity from renewable 
sources by 2025 would require an increasing dependence on biomass, and 
subsequently the need to clear-cut 46,000 square miles of forests over 
the next 15 years. That’s an area bigger than Pennsylvania.

The rush of studies and research in the last several years highlights 
a growing understanding that one cannot simply build a biomass plant, 
throw some wood in the boiler, and claim to be saving the planet. There 
are, however, circumstances and specific places where it can be done 
well.

Renewable energy resources in the southeastern U.S. don’t compare 
with wind in the Midwest or solar resources in the Southwest. As a 
result, biomass has long been suggested as a potential renewable energy 
option in the South. And though the same caveats remain in terms of 
determining carbon neutrality, there are differences. For one, the warm 
Southeastern climate means trees will grow back faster, lessening the 
period before neutrality is achieved.

Still, opposition has arisen to some proposed biomass plants in the 
Southeast. One 40-megawatt plant proposed in Lowndes County, Georgia, 
is being challenged by local environmental groups concerned about where 
the wood will come from and local health impacts.

Biomass proponents contend that the EPA’s decision to defer 
greenhouse gas permitting regulations for biomass plants will give the 
industry time to prove its environmental worth.

“I think it’s a good thing,” says Samuel Jackson, a biomass 
researcher at the University of Tennessee. “I think it will encourage 
industry investment and innovation in biomass utilization.” Jackson, 
who studies both woody biomass material as well as energy crops like 
switchgrass, is also involved with a startup biomass company called 
Genera Energy.

While some biomass energy skeptics, such as Booth and Moomaw, say the 
delay is political and a bad idea, other analysts are more optimistic 
about biomass’s potential.

“Biomass is a resource that can be tapped well or it is a resource 
that can be tapped badly, and we need policies that drive development 
of the good stuff but keep out the bad stuff,” says Rogers. “It can 
be done right, and we should find ways to do that, not just say no to 
it.” "

Sincerely,
Yelena Granovskaya

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