A Simple Regulatory Solution for Biogenic Emissions

There’s a lot about the Clean Power Plan that remains unsettled, including whether it will survive legal challenges.
By Bob Cleaves | June 29, 2016
There’s a lot about the Clean Power Plan that remains unsettled, including whether it will survive legal challenges.

There’s a lot about the Clean Power Plan that remains unsettled, including whether it will survive legal challenges. Also at the top of the list is how the plan will eventually treat biomass.

For us, there is a very simple solution: If fuel is derived from residues, whether it’s forest, agricultural or urban wood waste, it is renewable. Power generated using these fuels should fully qualify as a carbon reduction strategy.

The U.S. EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board has admirably set out to try to definitively calculate emissions from all biogenic sources, including many different scenarios like land use change, energy crops, and other situations that might produce biogenic fuel. The problem with this approach is that it’s nearly impossible to account for these widely varying conditions in a simple, clear equation that, for example, could help guide a state policy director who is trying to determine the role for biomass in his or her state’s carbon reduction plan.

The good news is that a complicated equation is really not necessary to create a role for existing biomass within the Clean Power Plan. In the absence of a comprehensive biogenic carbon calculation tool, we know plenty about the carbon benefits of using residues for biomass power. Virtually all scientists who have studied this issue agree that utilizing low-value materials and byproducts as fuel for biomass power is beneficial to the environment and vastly preferable to the use of fossil fuels. 

We continue to urge the EPA to make this distinction as soon as possible to encourage states to include biomass power in their state implementation plans. The EPA has emphasized flexibility for states in meeting their carbon reduction targets, but failing to clearly define biomass could have the unintended effect of discouraging states from building new and existing biomass into their plans. A positive signal from the EPA would ensure that states use every tool at their disposal for reducing greenhouse gases, maintaining a steady economy and keeping a stable power supply coursing through the electric grid. 

It’s important for biomass to have clarity under the Clean Power Plan. Across the country, facilities are challenged to compete with low natural gas prices, and regulatory certainty could influence states to support facilities now so that they can be relied on in the future.

Carbon reduction is just one among the many benefits of using residues for biomass power. Biomass gives value to materials that are often worthless or even detrimental. Biomass facilities purchase or remove hazardous fuel, slash piles, thinnings and overgrowth from federal lands and forests, reducing the risk for catastrophic wildfires. Because of biomass, foresters, landowners and loggers are able to get more value from their harvests, promoting land maintenance and preservation rather than selling it for development. Many farmers sell their orchard prunings and other agricultural waste to biomass facilities rather than open burning, the traditional way to dispose of these materials. According to the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, using biomass in a boiler with up-to-date environmental control technologies is a way to remove up to 99 percent of the particulate matter released by burning wood.

The EPA could ensure that states are able to continue reaping these benefits now and well into the future by designating biomass from residues as an accepted renewable fuel under the Clean Power Plan. The SAB process for determining how to treat other types of biogenic fuels could still continue while excluding what we already agree on: Biomass from residues is carbon beneficial.

It would be a shame—for the biomass industry and its supply chain, the power grid, the EPA, states and the U.S. Forest Service—to exclude biomass by default.

Author: Bob Cleaves
President, Biomass Power Association