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States Confront Biomass Power Delusions

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

From Maine to Washington state, from Ohio to Florida, electric utilities have been embracing “biomass power” as a way to reduce dependence on coal and other fossil fuels and to meet ambitious goals for limiting greenhouse gas emissions. And both state energy policies and the pending federal climate and energy legislation are designed to encourage the trend by providing huge incentives.

The trouble is, as a report released today (June 16) by Environmental Working Group documents, the hoped-for reduction in emissions is illusory. In fact, carbon emissions from burning biomass at rates designed to meet renewable power goals will make it impossible to meet federal and state greenhouse gas reduction targets. Making things worse, the only realistic way to satisfy the expected appetite for biomass fuel would require cutting down the equivalent of more than 46,000 square miles of forest by 2025 – an area larger than Pennsylvania.

That thought might make Paul Bunyan’s heart beat a little a faster, but it’s a grim prospect for the rest of us — and a climate change disaster.

EWG’s report points out that the enthusiasm for biomass power has been based on two assumptions that turn out to be delusional. The first is that burning fuel from vegetative sources is always “carbon neutral” – adding no net carbon to the atmosphere — because new growth supposedly absorbs the resulting carbon dioxide. The second is that there are ample sources of biomass fuel – from forestry residues, construction waste and purpose-grown crops – without cutting down whole trees.

EWG’s calculations, by ecologist Mary S. Booth, Ph.D., and EWG Senior Vice President Richard Wiles, are the most specific to date in identifying the toll that current and proposed energy and climate policies would take on America’s forests. Their report, titled “Clearcut Disaster: Carbon Loophole Threatens U.S. Forests,” reinforces and extends a wide range of other research and a growing chorus of analysts.

Just a week earlier, Massachusetts officials released a six-month study that concluded that in many cases, carbon emissions from burning biomass fuel would be worse than from coal. State officials commissioned the report by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences after activists and scientists challenged proposals to build up to four utility-scale biomass plants in that state, and state agencies now say they are rethinking the incentives that Massachusetts has offered for wood-burning plants since 2002.

And in Ohio, which currently gets 85 percent of its power from coal, environmental and consumer groups have raised similar objections to a slew of proposals to build or convert plants to use biomass fuel. The proposed plants would generate more than 1,700 megawatts of power. In filings with the Ohio Public Utilities Commission, opponents calculated that just one of the proposed plants “would require 2,919,800 green tons of wood annually, potentially over 10 million trees” – what they called “a stunning amount of wood.”

In EWG’s new report, Dr. Booth points out that pending climate bills in Congress and the renewables portfolio standards that many states have in place offer incentives for biomass burning based on the “carbon-neutral” assumption. That assumption, however, is “based on a misreading of internationally accepted carbon accounting standards,” an error that was identified in a paper published in 2009 in the prestigious journal Science but has yet to be corrected in state and federal biomass policy development.

In reality, burning trees and many other forms of biomass fuels releases a instantaneous pulse of greenhouse gases, but it takes decades to forests to re-grow enough to extract an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In the words of the new report:

This Enron-style accounting system hides massive carbon emissions that will result under all proposed climate policies. EWG’s analysis of government projections predicts that over the next 15 year about 4.7 billion tons of uncounted carbon will be generated from burning biomass, most of it from whole trees and all of it “off the books.”

Although biomass proponents insist that there is plenty of biomass fuel available without cutting forests, Dr. Booth’s report concludes that this is wildly unrealistic. She shows that utilities and biomass organizations themselves either concede this – or are vague about how they would acquire the vast quantities of biomass fuel their proposed plants would devour.

Both the House and Senate climate bills, meanwhile, explicitly allow for the burning of “trees,” along with logging residue, thinnings, cull trees, pulpwood, and brush removed from naturally regenerated forests or other non-plantation forests as acceptable sources of biomass energy.

EWG’s report makes clear that it is high time for states to reassess their policies encouraging biomass power, and for Congressional committees contemplating energy or climate bills to do the same.

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