Biomass leaders discuss policy priorities and sustainability

By Erin Voegele | March 16, 2021

The 2021 International Biomass Conference & Expo kicked off March 16 with a keynote address focused on biomass sustainability and a panel discussion with association leaders that addressed policy, markets and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jennifer Jenkins, vice president and chief sustainability officer at Enviva, discussed the role of biomass in meeting net-zero carbon goals during her keynote. Emissions reductions will not be enough to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, she said, stressing that technologies that can achieve negative carbon emissions will be required to help offset residual fossil emissions that are probably going to be very hard to get out of the supply chain.

Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECSS) is one of the most important carbon negative technologies available to help meet net-zero emissions, Jenkins stressed. Not all biomass is created equal, however.

Enviva, a producer of industrial wood pellets currently used primarily for energy generation in Europe, believes that “only good biomass” can help achieve climate targets, Jenkins said. For Enviva, that means that the biomass it uses to produce wood pellets must come from an area where the carbon stocks in the forest are stable or increasing, such as the Southeast U.S.

Jenkins addressed the misconception that woody biomass can’t sustainability be sourced from forest lands. In the southeastern U.S., where Enviva currently operates nine wood pellet plants across six states, forest lands are predominantly privately owned working forests. That means that when demand for forest materials increases, landowners actively produce more of that material. The relationship between supply and demand is very similar to traditional farming—when there is sufficient demand for a particular crop, farmers are likely to plant it. There is a positive relationship between harvest, growth, acreage and inventory, Jenkins explains. In fact, carbon stocks across forests in the Southeast have actually more than doubled since 1953 as a direct result of strong markets for forests products.

The IBEC’s general session also featured a panel conversation with association leaders representing the many different segments of the U.S. bioenergy industry, including Tim Portz, executive director of the Pellet Fuels Institute; Peter Thompson, deputy director of the Biomass Thermal Energy Council; Patrick Serfass, executive director of the American Biogas Council; Carrie Annand, executive director of the Biomass Power Association; and Seth Ginther, executive director of the U.S. Industrial Pellet Association.

Members of the panel opened the conversation with a discussion of the unique circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic. Serfass noted that the biogas sector has generally faired well during the pandemic, with projects continuing to remain under construction and under development. With the average biogas project creating roughly 25 construction jobs, the industry found it relatively easy to maintain COVID-19 protocols and keep project construction on track.

For the ABC itself, Serfass said the move to virtual meetings has actually proven beneficial. He estimates the ABC’s engagement in state policy matters has increased five to 10 times when compared to pre-pandemic, as a move to virtual hearings and events has allowed the group’s staff to participate in hearings and other events that would not have been possible to attend in person. Serfass said he hopes to see a hybrid remote/in person approach to those state policy events continue in the future.

Thompson said the BTEC’s members also faired fairly well during the pandemic, although some delays in project development were experienced. He primarily credited those delays to supply chain issues, particularly when materials and equipment were imported from overseas.

The panel also discussed policy priorities moving forward. Portz said it’s too early to tell how exactly the Biden administration may impact the PFI’s policy objectives. The big thing for the PFI, he said, is to maintain the ongoing—and seemingly endless dialog—around whether or not the combustion of wood pellets for space heating is part of a clean energy portfolio, and to make sure that its is treated as such in any federal policy.

Ginther said the Biden administration’s decision to rejoin the Paris Agreement is an enormous benefit to the biomass industry. It created a lot of angst with overseas parties when Trump withdrew the U.S. from that commitment, he said. Since Biden’s reversal of that decision, Ginther said folks overseas have been more welcoming. He also stressed that bioenergy is now becoming a part of macro-level geopolitical issues.

Serfass said the Renewable Fuel Standard and the U.S. EPA’s unwillingness to approve pathways and registrations for renewable electricity continues to be a big issue. Neither the Obama administration nor the Trump administration took action to allow eRINs to be generated under the RFS despite clear direction from Congress, he indicated. Moving forward, however, Serfass said things have never looked better regarding the potential to finally have that issue solved, in part because of the support President Biden has voiced for electric vehicles.

Annand said the BPA is also seeing a lot of signs of optimism when it comes to eRINs. Electricity in the RFS has been the biggest priority the BPA has focused on over the past several years. The RFS Power Coalition has a pending lawsuit against the EPA challenging its failure to act on eRIN pathways. Annand said oral arguments in that case occurred in September 2020, and the coalition is expecting a decision on that case this spring.

Annand also noted the RFS Power Coalition has a meeting scheduled with the EPA next week and is very interested to hear what the Biden administration’s position on the matter is. In addition, she said the coalition has been reaching out to the electric vehicle (EV) community in an effort to work together on the issue of eRINs and the RFS.

Thompson said the BTEC is looking at ways the Biden administration plans to address thermal energy decarbonization. Transportation and electricity are often the two most talked about sectors when it comes to decarbonization. Thermal energy, however, accounts for a significant percentage of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and is difficult to decarbonize, according to Thompson. Thermal energy needs in rural areas and cold climates are particular difficult to address, he added, noting that biomass energy can offer a great solution to those challenges.

The three-year investment tax credit (ITC) for high-efficiency home heating equipment that fires wood pellets, chips or cordwood that was contained in legislation signed by then-President Trump in December 2020 is a potential game changer for residential wood heating. Moving forward, the BTEC will be advocating for a similar business tax credit to be enacted for commercial-scale biomass heating systems, Thompson said. The BTEC will also be advocating for policy related to heating oil and renewable propane under the RFS, and biomass gasification-to-hydrogen.

From a broad perspective, Thompson said a lot will depend on whether the Biden administration addresses thermal energy—and if so, whether or not it takes an inclusive approach or focuses on electrification only.

Portz addressed the “anti-combustion” bias currently prevalent with some segments of the clean energy movement and stressed the bioenergy industry can’t let that bias become mainstream.

Serfass said it is important that those in the biomass industry keep reminding the public that they don’t only produce energy, bioenergy producers are also an important component of handling problematic organic material. The bioenergy industry not only produces electricity, heat and fuels, it also helps create a beneficial solution for food waste, wastewater, manure, and unmarketable wood. Our industry provides lots of different benefits beyond energy, he said, and we really, really have to underscore that.

Ginther stressed that peer-reviewed, scientific data clearly shows the world can’t solve the climate change debacle without biomass. The louder we can communicate that message and peg it to the science and date, the better, he said.