Biomass Definition Debated

By Tim Portz
On May 21, the House Energy committee passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act out of committee by a vote of 33-25. The 925-page draft addresses nearly all aspects of the future of our country's energy picture including greenhouse gases, renewable energy generation and energy efficiency measures. In section 610 in a segment titled "Federal Renewable Electricity Standard," policymakers have defined eligible biomass streams for renewable electricity generation. The definition was the source of great debate.

Two biomass streams that attract considerable attention and argument are the biomass harvested from federal forests and municipal solid waste (MSW). The intensity of the debate makes sense as these represent some of the largest sources of potential biomass. There are more than 190 million acres of federal forest, and the U.S. generated more than 250 million tons of MSW in 2006.

Federal forests have long been protected with good reason, but a recent proliferation of pine beetles has changed the landscape of that debate and millions of acres of national forests have been turned into giant tinder boxes. According to an article in the Colorado Independent, Colorado alone has more than 2 million acres of forest that have been decimated by the pine beetle and towns such as Vail and Frisco are looking to their now grey hills as a potential source of renewable power. Clearly, the British thermal units (Btus) from these infested trees will be released at some point. The question is, will those Btus be captured or will they be released during potentially devastating forest fires? In a nod to this eventuality, the committee amended the bill to allow biomass resources from national forests "that are removed to reduce hazardous fuels, to reduce or contain disease or insect infestation, or to restore ecosystem health" to qualify.

It is less clear where the committee stands on MSW. While MSW is excluded from official biomass classification with the phrase "but not municipal solid waste," there is language earlier in the bill that suggests that advanced technologies to produce energy from MSW would be allowed under a "Qualified Waste to Energy" provision. The language in this section aims to steer the industry away from straight incineration and favors gasification or pyrolysis.

Either of these streams could find themselves outside of the definition of biomass once again, but the biomass portions of HR 2454 appear to be the product of thoroughly argued policymaking.

Tim Portz is a business developer with BBI International's Community Initiative to Improve Energy Sustainability. Reach him at or (651) 398-9154.