Pitfalls of One-Size-Fits-All Approach to Biomass Emissions

By Bob Cleaves
A recent article from Science Magazine that challenges the carbon benefits of biomass to energy is making the rounds on Capitol Hill. After reviewing the article, it's clear that the disparity in carbon dioxide output stems from the assumption of major land-use changes that are theoretically possible if new feedstock comes from the growing of energy crops. In our view, this is a solution in search of a problem.

Let's leave aside the fact that since Congress established the closed-loop production tax credit in 1992, not a single facility has been constructed. That's because the economics of growing energy crops for the production of power has never been economically feasible. Of course, that may change in a carbon constrained world. For now, it's difficult to overcome the economics and conclude that large-scale land conversion will actually occur.

Regardless, the article presents a one-size-fits-all approach to biomass emissions and fails to explain the differences between open- and closed-loop biomass power.

America's electricity from biomass is generated predominately from open-loop biomass power. Open-loop biomass power uses only waste material that would otherwise decompose on the forest floor. In addition, open-loop biomass power eliminates methane gas and reduces the carbon dioxide that would otherwise be emitted during the decomposition process. This method actually reduces overall greenhouse gases and offsets the burning of fossil fuels with clean, renewable electricity. Even the authors of the Science Magazine article say that utilizing wastes and residues for bioenergy production, including forest wastes, offsets emissions and is not the subject of their analysis about altered land use and biofuels.

Now to address closed-loop biomass power: closed-loop biomass power uses material grown specifically to produce electricity. This method relies on vegetation and plant life to eat up the additional carbon dioxide that is released during the electricity generation process. Naturally, this method of carbon offsets is more difficult to measure and ultimately creates a lag in the overall environmental benefit of closed-loop biomass power.

The failure to differentiate between open- and closed-loop biomass undermines the relevance of the emissions numbers. America predominately produces electricity from open-loop biomass power, and therefore, it wouldn't make sense to assume that legislative incentives would result in a groundswell of closed-loop production.

To lump all biomass into one large pool rather than clearly identifying the individual niches of each technology and fuel source is the wrong approach. It also blurs the fact that all legislation on Capitol Hill accounts for the differences between open- and closed-loop biomass in legislative definitions. Therefore, concerns about a massive shift in land use to grow tons of closed-loop biomass facilities are unfounded.

The bottom line is that it is greatly misleading to discourage the expansion of biomass power by citing theoretical land-use changes and concluding that all biomass power increases carbon emissions. Open-loop biomass power not only reduces carbon emissions, but it also eliminates harmful methane gas that would be released during decomposition and displaces fossil fuels that would be burned otherwise.

Both open- and closed-loop biomass offer enormous climate benefits and the Biomass Power Association will continue to educate policymakers and key legislative staff on these issues. For now, this is what we know-open-loop biomass power is irrefutably carbon neutral, and at times carbon negative. In order to meet the aggressive goals of a green economy, America must expand its use of open-loop biomass power.

Bob Cleaves is president and CEO of the Biomass Power Association. To learn more about biomass power, please visit www.USABiomass.org.