Biomass: America's 21st Century Energy Solution

The EPA draft rules on cutting carbon emissions rightly recognize that the world is changing and we need to find sustainable alternative energy. Biomass will have a strong role to play.
By Seth Ginther | June 24, 2014

President Obama and the U.S. EPA announced the draft rule for reducing greenhouse gas emissions here in the U.S. in early June. The rule applies to coal burning power plants and requires a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2030.  As with all EPA rules, this draft form will be open for public comment period for several months, with the final rule to be released next year. As drafted, the rule allows each state to create its own plan for complying with the federal policy and states have until June 2016 to submit their plans to EPA.

The draft rule makes observations that suggest that biomass will have a strong role to play in fulfilling these new requirements because “burning biomass-derived fuels for energy recovery can yield climate benefits as compared to burning conventional fossil fuels.” Woody biomass, while not a solution on its own, is a vital component of any future energy mix here in the U.S., because it is the only sustainable renewable fuel source that can work within the U.S’s current energy system while at the same time reducing carbon emissions. Because wood pellets represent a highly densified renewable fuel that can be transported over long distances (without sacrificing low greenhouse gas footprints), wood pellets have the potential to play a key role in meeting these emission reduction targets.  

From an environmental standpoint, woody biomass for energy (including wood pellets) has the backing of the scientific community who has, in numerous reports and letters to Congress, attested that it is carbon beneficial. While wood pellets emit carbon, the impact is fundamentally different then the carbon emitted by fossil fuels. The difference is that carbon burned from wood was already in the atmosphere and can be reabsorbed by trees, which engage in the natural, cyclical process of photosynthesis. However, the carbon emitted from fossil fuels is removed from permanent storage in the earth and is adding new carbon into the atmosphere.

While this may sound like semantics, the type of carbon that is released into the atmosphere does have significant environmental implications. In fact, the U.K. Environment Agency found that switching to bioenergy from coal can reduce carbon emissions between 75 and 90 percent. While completely replacing coal with wood is the ideal, in the short term, cofiring wood alongside coal also has tremendous environmental benefits. Studies by the National Renewable Energy Lab, EPA and the National Council for Air and Stream Improvement have found that cofiring biomass with coal reduces emissions of many toxic air pollutants such as ash, nitrogen, sulfur and mercury.

Because wood pellets can burn alongside coal, in the same furnaces in the existing U.S. coal facility infrastructure, they allow for the immediate carbon savings and continuing economic viability of that coal plant infrastructure. While wind and solar are an important part of the renewable energy mix, projects are often expensive, taking years to bring to life, and these energy sources are dependent on weather. Bioenergy works to fill the gaps and provides a fuel that is easily accessible, reliable and sustainable.

The EPA draft rules on cutting carbon emissions rightly recognize that the world is changing and the need to find sustainable alternative energy sources is paramount. While biomass does not propose to be the entire solution, it is the only energy source that can balance the United State's practical proposed goals of cutting carbon emissions with its innovative goals of finding reliable, domestically grown and sustainable energy sources for the future. More importantly, it can do all of this while, in many instances, preserving existing coal plant infrastructure and the jobs associated with that infrastructure.
Author: Seth Ginther
Executive Director
U.S. Industrial Pellet Association